Barbara Szczerba is a Polish speech therapist who tried for a baby with her former husband for more than 8 years
After much stress and frustration, she and her ex underwent 3 rounds of IVF, and had a daughter Nadia, now 16. Three years later, their second daughter Wierka was conceived naturally, and now Barbara is busy with 2 teenagers.
Just like most women who undergo IVF, Barbara chose to leave some of her frozen embryos in storage at the Polish fertility clinic. However, over the past 16 years, laws have changed. Now, Barbara finds herself facing an agonising – and angering – predicament.
Strict new Polish IVF laws passed in 2015
Under laws passed in 2015, the Polish government can now commandeer any frozen embryos or eggs donated by ‘single’ women. As Barbara is now divorced from her husband she is classed as a single woman. Her embryos are now classified as being from an anonymous donor. In 4 years – at the 20 year mark – they could be given to a married couple without her consent, or even her knowledge.
That means that her daughters could have full siblings out there that she has no right to meet. She is understandably distraught.
“If the embryos are taken away from me physically, I know that after 20 years they will no longer be mine [they will be] taken away against my will.”
“The fate of these embryos is decided not by me, but by someone else. Women in Poland are not taken seriously … nobody takes their rights seriously. It’s treated as something made up, something that women want but do not deserve.”
When these laws came into effect in 2015, thousands of single Polish women had already stored their embryos and eggs in clinics across the country. It cannot be overstated that these women did not agree to these terms. When these women decided to freeze and store their eggs, they had no idea that one day the government would remove their ownership over their genetic material.
Single women in Poland do not even have the option to implant their own embryos before the 20-year time period is up and they lose control forever. They are forbidden from utilising their own embryos unless they have a male partner.
Dr Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz, a cultural anthropologist at theUniversity of Warsaw, opines that these new laws are in place for cunning political ends. She says that this is all about defining what a “real Polish family should look like.”
She continues, “After 20 years, embryos that have not been used are taken away from the people who chose to create them.”
Poland is shifting ever more to the right
As Poland continues to move more to the right and the Catholic Church becomes ever more powerful, IVF has become a hot button issue. As Dr Radkowska-Walkowicz states, “On the one hand, surveys and public opinion questionnaires show Poles being in favour of in vitro fertilization.”
“On the other hand, for the last several years there has been a political debate where many hurtful things are being said to couples attempting to get pregnant through in vitro fertilisation as well as children born from this treatment.”
Despite these new laws, IVF remains a popular choice for couples in the country. Marta van der Toolen operates a boutique clinic called FertiMedica in the capital of Warsaw. The clinic has a high success rate, but these days all doctors must clearly advise all couples about the new laws.
Couples are often very concerned about the new laws. “Some of the patients are surprised, so some are asking questions: why in 20 years do they have to give their embryos for adoption? Why was the law built like that?”
While many couples, desperate to have a baby, go on to undergo the treatments anyway – what choice do they really have?
Van der Toolen continues. “Some of the patients are really calculating how many [eggs] they would like to have fertilised. To have an influence on the number to be produced, because they don’t want their embryos distributed after 20 years.”
‘Dark times’ in Poland
After the far right-wing Law and Justice Party was elected in 2015, it became clear that women’s rights would be chipped away. The party was vocal about their desire to return the country to its Catholic roots, and protect ‘family values.’
Women’s rights activist Barbara Baran told ABC News that Poland is enforcing “dark times for feminists and LGBTIQ people. For the last four years, we’ve been seeing shrinking space of civil rights … we are really scared [about] what is going to happen.”
Believe it or not, some Polish politicians and activists want the Law and Justice Party to move even further to the right, and ban IVF completely.
Nikodem Bernaciak, an analyst for the far right Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, believes that IVF is wrong. “In IVF procedures, you have to create six human beings and you choose only one of them, and other embryos are frozen — and probably for 20 or 30 years — eventually they will be destroyed.”
Women are fighting back
Women are protesting these laws, taking to the streets in anger and protest. In the meantime, some Polish women are choosing to seek IVF outside of the country in order to freeze their embryos outside of the grasp of the government.
What do you think about these new Polish laws? Do you agree that the government should be able to reassign ‘abandoned’ embryos, or should they always have to seek explicit permission of the donors? Share this article on your social media – it’s sure to get a heated debate started!