One year ago, on the night Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, the phone started ringing at the country’s most high-profile family planning organisation. Over the course of the evening, volunteers took calls from more than 20 panicked women who suddenly found their next-day appointments for abortions cancelled.
One of the calls was from hospital staff at a loss over what to do about a woman who broke down after being told that her termination would not go ahead. “She went into a frenzy, got into the hospital lift and was going up and down, up and down, without stopping for an hour,” says Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa).
Staff at Federa were used to helping women navigate a hostile healthcare system in which legal terminations were already virtually impossible. But the new legislation put in place an almost total abortion ban in everything but name, allowing women to terminate only if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or if it represented a threat to life or health. At the time the legislation was brought in, about 1,000 legal abortions were carried out in Poland every year, 98% because of foetal abnormalities. This option was now closed to women. It was, says Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer for Federa, a devastating blow.
Since its announcement, at least 34,000 women in Poland have managed to get abortions despite the ban, and hundreds travelled abroad for later abortions, facilitated by groups such as Abortion Support Network and Women on Web.
But now the women calling Federa for help are often in serious distress, many further into their pregnancy because they have discovered a problem at a second-trimester scan. Pregnancies are more likely to have been planned. “In the past, it was rare for us to receive calls from individuals in this state. This last year, it has been 80% of our work,” says Ferenc in Federa’s Warsaw office. “Every call is very emotional.”
In the past year staff and volunteers at Federa, like many other women working as advisers, lawyers and activists in the pro-choice movement, have faced death threats, intimidation and legal challenges. Many have said they are exhausted by their increasing workload as they struggle to help women trying to access safe abortions.
Ferenc says she is not afraid of the people who send bomb threats to her office or superimpose bullet holes on pictures of her face. “I’m more scared that one day prosecutors will launch an investigation against us,” she says. In the past, few Poles faced trial on abortion-related charges. The state largely turned a blind eye to illegal abortion services, with pages towards the back of newspapers filled with euphemistic adverts for private clinics offering “restoration of the menstrual cycle”. That changed when the new law came in.
Justyna Wydrzyńska, of pro-choice groups Abortion Dream Team and Women on Web, became the first Polish abortion activist to face the prospect of trial in September, after a man notified the police that his wife ordered abortion pills online. The case is ongoing.
Ferenc believes the latest changes did not fully appease the ruling Law and Justice party’s (PiS) religious base. “Before, abortion was not a topic, no one wanted to talk about it. Now the anti-abortion groups on whose support PiS is relying are demanding blood.”
Marta Lempart – who is fighting 86 court cases under various charges – heads the pro-choice Polish Women’s Strike movement and says the new laws have targeted the women most at need of healthcare and support.
“Polish women with unwanted pregnancies are now in a better situation than those with wanted pregnancies but who are facing complications, because there is a working system completely outside of public healthcare for the former. But the healthcare system does not provide a service to the latter at all.”
A further attempt to ban abortion completely and jail women who had terminations for life was rejected by the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, but the government has since announced it would begin compiling a database of all pregnancies across the country, a move defended as a digitisation of existing documentation but which women’s rights groups believe is another natalist policy designed to control women’s lives and a sign that worse is to come.
Meanwhile, an underfunded and overstretched Polish healthcare system, accused of failing to provide women with reproductive care, is emboldened by the new laws. “Women are falsely told by doctors that contraceptive pills give them cancer, or that an IUD is dangerous for those who haven’t had children yet,” says Ferenc. She has begun advising women to record their conversations with doctors. One woman said that doctors treating her breast cancer repeatedly told her the illness was caused by an abortion she had months earlier.
But Kacpura and others believe the legislation may also have had a chilling effect on doctors who are terrified of navigating the new law. She says, before the 2021 ruling, doctors would rarely contact her, but in the past year she has been answering their calls day and night. “No one [in authority] explained to the doctors what they should do,” she says. Sometimes, doctors call to pass on the numbers of patients they were not able to legally help. “I called one woman straight after she left the hospital. She was in an awful state, it’s hard to say what she would have done if we hadn’t reached her.”
Agata Bzdyń, a lawyer who represents a number of women who have taken their abortion refusals to the European court of human rights, points to reports that Bielański hospital in Warsaw, which she says “has a reputation for still providing abortions”, has been under pressure from the government to hand over documents on the number of terminations approved. Bielański did not respond to a request for comment.
Beyond the government, Roman Catholic lay groups continue to exert pressure for an outright abortion ban. The group Ordo Iuris (Order of Law) was one of the mobilising forces behind a citizen’s bill in favour of a total abortion ban, a move that was rejected by parliament but precipitated the ruling. Since 2016, the organisation has acted as official adviser to the PiS government in areas of reproductive rights and education. The organisation recently announced that it will provide legal representation to a man who is suing his wife for having an abortion, which Ordo Iuris argues violated the man’s right to family life.
The most shocking case of the past 12 months is that of a woman called Izabela, who died in November of septic shock while in her 22nd week of pregnancy. Doctors at the hospital in Pszczyna, in south-west Poland, did not perform an abortion, even though her foetus would not survive, according to a lawyer for the family. “For now, because of the abortion law, they can’t do anything,” Izabela texted to her mother shortly before she died. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined . She is survived by a husband and daughter.
Kacpura said she knows of several cases in the past year where the woman’s waters broke prematurely, as Izabela’s did, but doctors refused to perform a caesarean or induce birth. “A nightmare, because the foetus cannot survive but the heartbeat can continue for days, sometimes weeks, and the woman has to wonder whether she has already become a coffin.”
Bartłomiej Wróblewski, a leading PiS parliamentary force behind the change in the law, said: “It is not true that this law puts women’s lives in danger, because nobody challenged existing provision of Polish law to rescue endangered life and health of the mother, even when it leads to the death of their unborn child.” Echoing other governmental and anti-abortion voices, he stressed that in his eyes there was no connection between Izabela’s death and the new abortion restrictions, instead putting the blame on doctors.
But Izabela’s death horrified the country and sparked fresh protests. It may have proved a turning point. Several polls have found the majority of people in the country oppose the 21 January ruling.
Even those who are not pro-choice resent what they see as the Roman Catholic church overstepping the mark by creating political pressure for a ban, says Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at Sussex University. “About 40% of people in Poland still attend weekly mass, but that is not to suggest they are happy for the church to have more control of their lives,” says Szczerbiak. He believes the change in law may have shifted perceptions of the issue in Polish politics.
Ferenc echoes this. “We thought there was no political chance to change [the law around abortion]. The paradox is that it has changed for the worse, but that means we have a chance to liberalise the law too,” she says.
A pro-choice citizen’s bill calling for abortion to be made fully available is gaining momentum. “We had an older gentleman come in whose wife told him to print the form from the internet and he got his friends to sign it, and then he came to deliver his 10 signatures,” says Lempart from her office on Wiejska Street, a few doors down from the Polish parliament. “Before, initiatives to collect signatures were mostly organised by groups and political parties. Now, I’d say 60% is just individuals collecting signatures.”
Organisers say the citizen’s bill has reached the 100,000 signatures needed for official recognition and more signatures are coming in every day.
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Coronavirus BA.4 and BA.5: New virus, new Covid-19 wave | Opinion
Anyone wishing to know what the future of the Covid-19 pandemic looks like would do well to watch South Africa. It’s not because several forms of SARS-CoV-2 first emerged there and later spread across the planet – that, too – but because of the quality of its epidemiological research, conducted by scientists who put raw reality ahead of diplomatic discretion. Thanks to them, we’ve just learned that Covid waves are tied to the emergence of new variants with a greater ability to infect and to escape our immune systems. This strongly indicates that the evolution of the virus is much like an arms race between SARS-CoV-2 and our own antibodies, in what amounts to a classic mechanism of evolution. The crab’s shell becomes thicker to avoid being eaten by a lobster, and the lobster’s claws get bigger so it will keep catching as much food as before. Inside the body of a patient who has survived Covid, antibodies become increasingly efficient while the virus becomes ever more slippery. It’s the laws of nature.
The initial waves of 2020 were caused by the original Wuhan strain and a few others derived from it. The wave of winter 2020-2021 is linked to the beta strain, which was later replaced with the delta variant in the 2021 waves. In late 2021, when things seemed to be quieting down, we had the omicron strain, which came in two flavors or subvariants: BA.1 and BA.2. And now we have BA.4 and BA.5. Each new iteration spreads more than its predecessor and does a better job at eluding human antibodies. As expected, BA.4 and BA.5, the latest designs of viral evolution, are exceptionally good at bypassing our immune system. And they are starting to gain traction in South Africa and parts of Europe. Everything seems to indicate that we will see a new wave, this time caused by SARS-CoV-2 omicron BA.4 and BA.5.
But let’s remain calm: there is no indication that these two subvariants are going to cause a rise in serious Covid cases and hospital admissions. The population’s immunity, either through vaccination or previous infection, can accomplish very little to prevent contagion, but it does protect the infected individuals from developing serious Covid. Some scientists say, half-jokingly, that a single omicron wave could be viewed as a natural vaccination campaign. Of course, people with low defenses – those who are immunocompromised – would do well to protect themselves from infection. It is hard to predict what the virus could do to them, and not even vaccines can guarantee them the same degree of protection as the general population.
Virologists have made a family tree of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. It shows that neither alfa nor beta nor gamma nor omicron are children of delta, but come from other strains that emerged at the same time as delta. This eliminates the mystical aura around omicron: it did not fall out of the sky six months ago, but simply revealed itself later than other variants. All this knowledge is helping identify which specific mutations are behind the high infection rate and ability to escape immunity. The data has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Alone under siege: how older women are being left behind in Ukraine | Global development
Halyna Vasylivna lives alone in a tiny “Khrushchevka” flat. At 94, she has outlived her sons and her husband, and her grandchildren live outside the city.
Her apartment, named after the Soviet leader under whom the five-storey buildings in Kyiv’s Podil district were built, is too far from the bunker so she hides in her pantry during airstrikes.
Vasylivna is grateful for her social worker Olya’s visits a few times a week. She wishes she did not live alone. “It’s important to have someone who can listen to you,” she says.
Vasylivna is one of 2 million older women in Ukraine who have remained largely invisible to authorities. Most of Ukraine’s elderly people are women – they make up two-thirds of those aged over 65 and 71% of those aged above 75 – partly because Ukraine has the sixth highest proportion of women in the world.
These women are reliant on tiny state pensions (Vasylivna’s is about £130 a month), and require support from social services, charities and international institutions. They have become the group most likely to be alone, whether through mobility issues, bereavement or a reluctance to leave familiar surroundings. The lucky few get help; many do not. Ukraine’s health and social care system was already under pressure before Russia invaded in February.
Despite progress through reforms, including decentralisation that allowed regional institutions to allocate budgets locally, an overstretched and underfunded health system is again in crisis. Ukraine’s expenditure on healthcare has declined from 7.8% of GDP in 2015 to 7.1% in 2019 (the last available data). The world average was 9.8% in 2019. Now the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, with dozens of accounts of rape and murder of Ukrainian elderly women – the biggest group left behind, of those allowed to leave, and least able to escape.
In Kyiv’s Holosiyevo district, there are 786 elderly people – 80% of them women like Vasylivna – alone, unable to leave their homes, and without relatives to care for them. Since Russia attacked, the number of social workers in the local centre has collapsed by more than 75%. Those women who remain are mostly elderly themselves, and now have four times as many clients to look after. They work five days a week, earning about £170 a month to supplement their small state pensions. “We need to support both our elderly clients and ourselves,” says 65-year-old social worker Nataliya Bodnar.
Social centre manager, Oksana Ruban, says they have faced multiple challenges. “Public transport was closed, the curfew lasted sometimes up to several days, shops closed, too. We had to make sure all of our clients were taken care of by someone – if not relatives or us, at least by neighbours or volunteers. We all worked relentlessly.”
The situation for older people is particularly acute in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where a survey of more than 1,500 over-60s conducted in March revealed the scale of the problem: 99% do not want to leave their homes; 91% need help to get food; 91% are also experiencing extreme cold, with no heating due to electricity cuts; 75% need basic hygiene items; and 34% need urgent medication for chronic illness. These needs are exacerbated by a shortage of vital medicines and Russia destroying healthcare facilities.
“I wonder why some young people evacuate their cats and hamsters, but leave their parents behind,” says Roman Vodyanyk, head doctor at Severodonetsk hospital in Luhansk, the only functioning hospital left in the city. With no water, gas or electricity in Severodonetsk, Vodyanyk has turned the hospital, which has more than 50 patients, into a humanitarian hub, providing hot food, wifi and medical support. About 220 patients have left in the past month, but many elderly people have no desire to evacuate, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.
“How do you evacuate a hospital in this situation? How do you leave them all behind?” asks Vodyanyk. So despite the shelling and along with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers, he is not leaving either.
Elderly people are often the forgotten category in any humanitarian crisis – an analysis of Google news search keywords between 24 February and 22 April found that 97% of all Ukraine-headlined articles that mentioned either children or the elderly were focused on children. Only 3% mentioned elderly people, of which only three touched on elderly women. Despite there being more than 50% more retirees in Ukraine than children under 15, the 390 UK NGOs operating in Ukraine are nearly twice as likely to be helping children than elderly people,
According to Justin Derbyshire, CEO of HelpAge International, the problem is global: elderly patients’ specific needs are neglected by governments and international bodies during and after wars. “This is systemic ageism and an example of how bad the global system is at responding to older people’s needs.”
Elderly people, such as Vasylivna and Bodnar, are at the centre of the crisis in Ukraine, as victims and rescuers. After a lifetime of looking after others, they are now vulnerable, not only to loneliness and hunger, but also to rape and murder.
“I’ve seen everything – the Holodomor [great famine of 1932-33], the second world war, so many horrors. What else could scare me?” says Vasylivna. She never imagined Russia would invade. It is her inability to take care of herself that scares her now. She feels trapped. “I would evacuate if I could take care of myself. I was working my whole life. It’s such a shame I can’t do anything any more.”
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The Ukraine war in maps: Ukrainian forces battle to recover Snake Island | International
May 13 | The battle for Snake Island
The all-out attack that Russian troops deployed at the beginning of the offensive in Ukraine did not leave out maritime control of the Black Sea: the Kremlin’s naval force soon took up positions the island of Zmiinyi, also known as Snake Island and located around 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Odessa and 40km (25 miles) from the Romanian coast. The first map of the conflict published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 25 showed it under Russian control even then. In a statement in February, the Ukrainian Navy said that the invaders had destroyed infrastructure on this island of one square kilometer. A comparison of satellite images captured before the invasion and in recent days shows that the destruction of the main building occurred between May 6 and 7.
August 23, 2016
May 6, 2022
Areas burnt by earlier attacks
May 7, 2022
May 8, 2022
Area of attack
(shown in video)
British intelligence warned last Tuesday that if Russian troops consolidate their position on the island, deploying air defense cruise missiles, they could control the northwest portion of the Black Sea. The permanent Russian settlement on Snake Islands entails sea, land and air control of that entire area, military strategy expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.
The strategic importance of the islet, which grants control over maritime traffic in the port of Odes, is enough to justify the ongoing struggle for it. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that it destroyed several planes, helicopters, drones and a landing craft in the early hours of Sunday morning during a Ukrainian attempt to recapture the island. Ukraine claimed that it only attacked Russian troops deployed there. British intelligence stated that Ukraine has used drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft defenses and supply ships, stranded after the invaders retreated to the Crimean coast following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The sensors of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites have made it possible to observe hot spots on the island which, in the context of war, can be associated with attacks. These indications of attacks have been recurrent since last February, and particularly intense during the last weekend, coinciding with a video of an attack on the island.
The proximity of Zmiinyi to NATO coasts has not prevented it from becoming a battlefield in the conflict. Armand Gosu, a professor of Russian Political History at the University of Bucharest, explained to Efe news agency that Moscow categorically dominates the Black Sea: “There is a huge military imbalance. Its ships patrol international waters without restriction, which has allowed the Russians to block a maritime outlet from Odessa,” he said. This blockade stifles Ukrainian sea exports that are essential to defend the coastal town from a hypothetical Russian siege like the one suffered by Mariupol.
March 8 A heat source can be seen in the northeast of the island, probably as a result of an attack, as well as a plume of smoke. The area inside the box contains most of the facilities.
March 23 Two weeks later, the Sentinel 2 satellite captured a new hot spot in a nearby area.
May 7 Once again a heat source can be seen, coinciding with a great column of smoke detected by satellites and shown earlier.
May 9 The last available image shows no hot spots, but the island’s vegetation has been largely burnt down as a result of the confrontation.
May 10 | Russian progress
In the two and a half months since the start of the Ukraine invasion, the Russian offensive has changed strategies: at first it sought to take control of the major cities, then focused its efforts on the separatist region of Donbas and on securing the borders. Since then, the frontline has moved in line with modest but systematic Russian advances that have only met with resistance at a spot that’s been highly militarized since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. The change in the frontline can be seen in the following maps, which show the situation on the ground every two weeks since Russia changed its strategy on March 25. The red color shows areas under Russian control, which have been expanding for the last month and a half.
Donbas is an area covering around 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Costa Rica. It is divided into two oblast (administrative units) – Donetsk and Luhansk. Along the northwest, it borders the Kharkiv region, home to the city of Izyum, which is the starting point for Russia’s attempt to encircle Ukrainian defenders holding the frontline. From there, Russian troops have been trying to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the military headquarters and de facto capital of Donetsk, although they have had limited success.
When the Kremlin’s troops announced that their target was eastern Ukraine, they were already controlling much of Donetsk, Luhansk and the area extending to Kharkiv.
Two weeks later, the situation on the front had barely changed after a reorganization of the invading troops except in the area of Izyum, the new Russian center of operations.
The siege of Mariupol, which made Ukrainian defenders retreat to an industrial site, allowed Russia to free up troops to cement control over the northern end of the city.
Despite Ukrainian counterattacks that are gaining back territory near Kharkiv, the areas under Russian control increasingly encircle the Donbas border
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Kremlin’s forces near Izyum are regrouping and resupplying before resuming offensive operations in the southeast and southwest.
In the south of the country, near Crimea and the Black Sea, there is a similar situation: slow but constant Russian advances and reinforced positions in places like Kherson, which was swiftly captured in the early days of the invasion. Ukrainian counterattacks have barely made a dent on Russian forces, who have increased the territory under their control week after week. Moscow has been concentrating anti-aircraft and missile systems in the northern area of Crimea, said the ISW. This could be a prelude to resume offensive operations towards Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.
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