Poland’s abortion debate back in parliament

Women with rainbow flags protest against strengthening of the abortion law in front of the Polish Sejm in Warsaw, Poland, 10 January 2018. [Pawel Supernak/EPA]

Poland’s abortion debate was back on the agenda on Wednesday (10 January), more than a year after tens of thousands of black-clad women successfully took to the streets in the Catholic country to stop the tightening of a law that is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.

The Polish parliament, which is controlled by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, began debating two competing draft laws: one that aims to liberalise the law and another that seeks to ban abortion when the foetus is deformed.

The first citizen’s initiative, tabled late November by the “Zatrzymaj aborcje” (Stop Abortion) committee, has a good chance of passing and would amount to what critics call a total abortion ban.

Current legislation, passed in 1993, bans all abortions except in cases of rape or incest, if the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother or if the foetus is severely deformed.

There are around 1,000 legally performed abortions a year in the country of 38 million people, though women’s groups estimate that 100,000 to 150,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.

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Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has looked firmly in control since sweeping to power a year ago but it may have pressed its conservative agenda too far by initially backing a virtual ban on abortion.

A deformed foetus was the reason behind 96% of the legal abortions carried out in Poland in 2016, according to Kaja Godek, one of the initiators of the Stop Abortion proposal.

‘Eugenic abortion’

The activists want to ban what they call “eugenic abortion”, or terminations carried out to eliminate potentially defective foetuses, often in pregnancies where Down syndrome has been detected during pre-natal screening.

“The initiative provides for the removal from current law of the possibility to kill handicapped children or children who run the risk of it,” she told AFP.

“There’s broad consensus” on that point, she said, adding that “in two months, the initiative was signed by a record 830,000 people.”

President Andrzej Duda, who is close to the Catholic Church, vowed in November to sign the initiative into law if it is adopted “in order to abolish the right to kill children with Down Syndrome”.

The proposal is less restrictive than the one that set off the protest of tens of thousands of women dressed in black across the country in 2016, ultimately leading the parliament to scrap it.

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The rejected initiative, which had been tabled by the ultra-conservative Ordo Iuris association, called for jail sentences of up to five years for doctors and others taking part in the abortion, including the women themselves – though judges could waive the punishment in their case.

Over a hundred protesters on both sides of the abortion divide rallied in front of parliament during the debate.

“I’m thinking very seriously about emigrating. I really like my country, but the political climate has changed so much that I cannot imagine giving birth and raising my children here,” Kamila Radecjka, 32, told AFP.

Around fifteen activists favouring the ban projected images of the bloody bodies of aborted foetuses on a large screen with the sound of crying babies blaring out of loudspeakers.

“Abortion is the killing of an innocent child,” said activist Maciej Wiewiorka.

Conscience clause

Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government has put an end to public funding for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and made the morning-after pill prescription-only.

Women’s rights groups also point to the fact that many doctors and even entire hospitals use the conscience clause to avoid carrying out legal abortions.

According to the Federation for Women and Family Planning, only 47 Polish hospitals carried out legal abortions in 2016, or 10% of all of the authorised establishments.

On Wednesday, parliament also debated the “Let’s Save Women 2017” citizen’s initiative to liberalise the abortion law, which has almost no chance of passing.

Socialists and Democrats reject Polish ‘morning-after pill’ restrictions

MEPs from the Socialist & Democrats are pushing back against the latest attempts by the right-wing government in Warsaw to clamp down on access to contraception, calling it an “attack on women”.

The initiative calls for allowing abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy for psychological and social reasons, as well as for over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill.

“Women’s rights have been drastically curbed over the last year. We’ve seen access to contraception and to reproductive rights reduced,” said Barbara Nowacka, a left-wing politician and women’s rights activist who will present the pro-choice initiative in parliament.

“Poland can’t live with a hypocritical law that discriminates against women and takes away their right to dignity and privacy. We want a normal, European Poland,” she told parliament.