Warsaw, Poland - More Polish women are travelling abroad to have an abortion to bypass strict laws outlawing the practice in their overwhelmingly Catholic country, a pro-choice group said on Thursday.
Poland, a country of 38 million where the Catholic Church retains considerable clout, has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the 27-nation European Union.
It allows terminating pregnancy only at an early stage and when it threatens the life or health of the mother, when the baby is likely to be permanently handicapped or when pregnancy originates from a crime, for example rape or incest.
Official statistics show only several hundred abortions are performed every year, but pro-choice campaigners say underground abortions are very common.
"We estimate... that on average 150,000 abortions are performed per year," Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, told lawmakers at a meeting in the Polish parliament on Thursday.
"Of this number, some 10-15 percent of abortions are performed abroad and this number is definitely growing."
Doctors from Germany, Austria, Britain and the Netherlands who terminate the pregnancies of Polish women every day also attended the meeting.
"Several thousand Polish women terminate pregnancies in Germany every year," said Janusz Rudzinski from a clinic in Prenzlau in Germany, near the Polish border.
The doctors said women sought abortions abroad because they were illegal at home and often performed in poor conditions. They also fear social ostracism if they undergo an abortion in Poland, the doctors said.
An illegal abortion in Poland costs 2,000-4,000 zlotys ($640-$1,270), compared to 400-600 euros ($510-$760) in Germany, 280 euros in the Netherlands and 450-2,000 pounds ($700-$3,120) in Britain, they said.
In Prenzlau, visits take 3-4 hours, while in Vienna they take two days.
Poland lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 to Alicja Tysiac, who nearly went blind after giving birth to a third child following failed attempts to find a doctor who would perform a legal abortion for her.
Abortion regulations are even more strict in Ireland and they also force thousands of women to terminate their pregnancy abroad, mostly in Britain.
"Officially, abortion tourism (into Britain) in 2009 stood at about 7,000 women ... Probably more than a thousand, maybe several thousands of them, were Polish," said Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Many of the Polish women who decide to terminate their pregnancy admit also to using contraception regularly despite declaring themselves Catholic, the doctors said.
The Catholic Church strongly opposes contraception as well as abortion. There has been a lot of public debate on these issues, to the dismay of Polish liberals who say this undermines the country's secular constitution.
"The abortion law in Poland is a perfect example of how the state is unable to liberate itself from the powerful influence of the Catholic Church," said independent MP Marek Balicki, who served as health minister in a previous leftist government.