Bitter twist to Poles' abortion curbs

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Central Europe Correspondent

Polish police have reported an alarming surge in the numbers of new- born babies being killed and dumped by their mothers following the passage of a strict anti-abortion law.

According to figures released earlier this month, 162 new-borns were found discarded in rubbish tips, rivers and woods last year, a ten-fold increase on annual figures common before the passage of the 1993 law. Although most of those abandoned were dead on discovery, the police have also recorded instances of new-borns that were still alive being dumped in dustbins - only then to be rescued by passers-by hearing their cries.

Most of the cases that have come to light involve impoverished women who already have two or three children. Jolanta Plakwicz of the Polish Feminist Association said that in a country where ignorance and mistrust of contraception was still widespread, theirs were tragic cases.

"It is a drastic step for a woman to abandon her own child," she said. "They see it as the only solution to their problem. But it is terrible that they are no longer able to prevent the situation occurring."

Under Poland's Communist-era legislation, abortions were available on demand and for many women they were simply a form of birth control. The 1993 law, which followed intense pressure from Poland's powerful Catholic Church, outlawed abortion in all cases accept where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, the foetus was malformed or where the life or health of the mother was seriously jeopardised.

Supporters of the law, the second most stringent in Europe behind that of Ireland, declare it to have been an overwhelming success. Whereas in the 1980s an estimated 500,000 abortions were performed annually, the number for 1994 was just 782. Detractors of the law, however, say it has spawned a range of unsavoury practices. In addition to the killing and abandoning of new-born babies, the law has also resulted in a surge in back-street abortions and "gynaecological tours" to neighbouring countries were pregnancies can be terminated with no questions asked.

In a precedent-setting case in the southern town of Chorzow, a doctor is currently on trial charged with illegally carrying out an abortion. If found guilty, he could be jailed for two years, sending out a strong signal to other doctors who have to date turned a blind eye to the law.

Despite the unpopularity of the 1993 law, attempts to liberalise it have been torpedoed by President Lech Walesa, himself a staunch Catholic. Women's groups are now pinning their hopes for change on a defeat for Mr Walesa in presidential elections due in the autumn.