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Monday, November 29, 2010


A few weeks ago I met a German woman named Sarah Diehl, who's in the US doing a screening tour for her documentary, "Abortion Democracy: Poland / South Africa." I saw a short preview of the film and have been looking forward to seeing it ever since.

Poland is one of the few countries in Europe that has criminalized abortion in almost all cases -- and this isn't an ancient law, either, but one passed in 1994. I remember a few years ago reading about a Polish woman who sued the government in the European Court of Human Rights after being denied an abortion that would have saved her deteriorating eyesight. Alicja Tysiac is functionally blind as a result of this denial; the court found that the Polish law did not even uphold the narrow exceptions it claimed to make for cases where a woman's health was endangered by pregnancy, the government had failed by the standards of its own law and  Tysiac's human rights had been violated. The court awarded her compensation, but of course that won't restore her sight. The story both outraged and terrified me: abortion policies aren't an abstraction limited to proving ideological points -- they are terribly, viscerally real for the women whose decision-making they vitiate.

South Africa, on the other hand, is one of the few countries in Africa that has legalized elective abortion. The law was changed in 1996 to allow abortion "on demand" in the first trimester and abortion on certain legal, medical or socioeconomic grounds in weeks 13-20. (Quick fact: "on demand" means that women are not required to stand before a judge, panel of doctors, or other jury who will approve or reject their 'case' for an abortion.) Yet legally-qualifying abortions are still quite difficult to obtain for many South African women, especially in the second trimester. In fact, "Abortion Democracy" suggests that it may be "easier to obtain an illegal abortion in Poland than it is to obtain a legal abortion in South Africa." In this sense, national policies are not the only thing that determines the nature of on-the-ground access, not by a long shot.

I'll be watching the movie tonight, so I'll be back with an update on how it was. In the meantime, I hope this trailer gets you as intrigued as I am.

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