Single woman in Poland? Your embryos could be given to another couple


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Barbara Szczerba and her two daughters are appalled by IVF laws which could affect their family.

The story of Barbara Szczerba’s family is much like one you would hear from an Australian woman who has lived with infertility.

The Polish speech therapist and her former husband tried for a baby for eight years before undergoing three rounds of IVF, then falling pregnant with her daughter Nadia, who is now 16.

Her second daughter Wierka was born more “spontaneously” three years later, and Barbara is now busy raising two bright high-schoolers on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Just like an Australian woman seeking treatment for infertility, she had to weigh up the costs of undergoing IVF: the physical, emotional and financial toll.

After her daughters were born, she left some frozen embryos in a storage bank in a Polish clinic, as many women across the world do.

But as the years have passed and laws have changed in Poland, Barbara now finds herself in an astonishing situation.

A computer shows an unfertilised egg.


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Despite the law changes, IVF is still a popular option in Poland.

Under Polish law, her embryos could one day be given to a married couple she has never met, without her permission.

Because Barbara is separated from her husband, as a single woman, she is now treated as an “anonymous donor” under a law passed in Poland in 2015.

“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,” Barbara says sadly.

Her embryos — with the same genetic material as her two daughters — could become babies raised by a couple she will never meet, and she may never know what becomes of them.

“The fate of these embryos is decided not by me, but by someone else,” Barbara says.

“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.”

Radical regulation

A woman in a red jumpsuit with"fight like a girl"


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Feminists in Poland have been protesting against the laws which restrict IVF treatment and abortion.

When the regulations around IVF in Poland happened four years ago, putting Barbara in this situation, it was too late for single women who already had some of their embryos stored in dozens of clinics across the country.

They are no longer able to have their embryos transferred unless they have a male partner to help raise the child, Dr Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz says.

Magdalena, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Warsaw, says the law is part of a broader discussion in the country about what a “real Polish family should look like”.

“After 20 years, embryos that have not been used are taken away from the people who chose to create them.”

The landscape is shifting around infertility treatment for women in Poland, as IVF becomes a flashpoint in a country lurching further to the right and promising to more closely align with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Women holding rosary beads protesting with flags behind them


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Poland is devoutly Catholic and wants politicians to vote to ban IVF, which the church there sees as sinful.

“On the one hand, surveys and public opinion questionnaires show Poles being in favour of in vitro fertilisation,” Magdalena says.

“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.”

IVF is still very popular in Poland, says Marta van der Toolen, who runs boutique clinic FertiMedica in Warsaw.

It is a calming space, adorned with motivational messages on the walls. Marta wanted it this way because she knows from personal experience how debilitating the experience can be.

Marta’s clinic has a good success rate, and is proud of all the babies born to the women who come here, but doctors must clearly explain to couples how Polish law now operates.

“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?” Marta says.

Most couples go ahead with treatment anyway, she says, but with the knowledge that should a woman separate from her husband, or should he die, her embryos could be given away in 20 years’ time.

“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.”

‘We are really scared’

A woman in a colourful scarf stands in a protest in Warsaw


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Activist Barbara Baran said free speech and civil rights were under attack in Poland.

On a freezing cold afternoon in Warsaw, thousands of women march through the city centre, angry about what they view as an erosion of women’s rights in Poland.

The right-wing Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, promising to protect the nation’s Catholic roots, and to stand up for family values.

Activist Barbara Baran tells the ABC these are dark times for feminists and LGBTIQ people in Poland.

“For the last four years, we’ve been seeing shrinking space of civil rights … we are really scared [about] what is going to happen.”

Katarzyna Kotula, a progressive politician, gestures behind her where another event is taking place, calling it “the biggest fascist march in Europe”.

A woman in a coat standing among protesters waving flags


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Female politicians in Poland, like Katarzyna Kotula, are outraged about the treatment of women in their country.

On the other side of the city, we found a starkly different scene playing out, as tens of thousands of Poles gathered for an annual rally for Independence Day.

In recent years, the march has been organised by far-right groups, and this year, as the sky turned red from flares, crowds carried anti-LGBTIQ and anti-abortion billboards showing dead foetuses.

“We have to return to our roots. Our world has abandoned God and Christianity,” one of the organisers told the crowd.

It was the previous government which regulated and restricted IVF in 2015.

The Catholic Church in Poland says IVF is sinful and urged politicians to vote to ban it.

People marching with Polish flags


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Organisers of a march on nationalist Independence Day in Warsaw this month told the crowd the world has “abandoned God”.

There are some influential legal analysts in Poland who would like to see the Law and Justice Party take the current law further.

Far from a compromise as others saw it, the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture thought the Government squandered an opportunity to tightly restrict or ban IVF.

“We sent our legal opinions … some of them were heard, most of them were not,” says Nikodem Bernaciak, an analyst at Ordo Iuris.

Ideally, the institute believes married couples — and only heterosexual couples — should be able to use just one embryo.

“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,” Nikodem says.

“The one embryo is chosen because of its genetic predispositions and the others are described as worse than this chosen one, so we are not afraid of calling it contemporary human eugenics.”

‘There is no room for the single mother’

A mother and her two teenage daughters sit around the household table.


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Barbara Szczerba says the law changes around IVF and single women came as a shock.

Barbara Szczerba was blindsided by the law when it came into force in 2015.

Her patient-support group, Our Stork, had thought the Government was moving in the right direction, to regulate a thriving industry by introducing standards and subsidies.

“No-one was expecting the situation with single women — where they weren’t even warned or allowed to prepare to send their embryos abroad.”

Dr Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz is aware of single women in Poland turning to “reproductive tourism” by moving their embryos abroad, or using sperm from overseas to inseminate themselves.

IVF advocate Anna Mazurczak has advised many clients who find that once they have had a baby overseas via IVF, they face difficulties registering the baby as a citizen.

And, she says, moving embryos overseas can be prohibitively expensive for some of the women affected by the law.

A woman in a beanie walking with protesters


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In Warsaw, thousands of anti-fascist protesters took to the streets earlier this month on Independence Day.

“I think we can say that [the embryos] were donated to the state in a way, we don’t know what will happen in another 16 years … I would say we’re in the middle of the process.”

Magdalena believes this unfurling debate has revealed how single mothers are viewed by some elements of Polish society.

“This law … accounts for the traditional Polish family and its creation,” she says.

“There is no room for the single mother, who, of course, has her own place in Polish life and society.”

She says IVF has become “a discussion about the role and place of the Catholic Church”.

For Barbara and the women she supports, there is little they can do except support one another and “keep some hope”.

A woman holding a sign during a protest


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Young Polish women say they are increasingly fearful for their future under the ruling Law and Justice Party.

“We are all sticking together as women, no doubt about that, but without the support of Polish men, no-one is going to listen to the voices of Polish women,” she says.

“The men in Poland have the loudest voice.”