Warsaw, Poland – Since 2015, the issue of abortion has been at the center of the struggle opposing Polish pro-choice and women’s rights movements to the conservative government’s repeated attempts, backed by the Catholic church, to tighten the law regulating terminations of pregnancy.
According to recent reports, the divisive matter will be put to rest in Europe’s most devout nation, at least for now, and won’t be pushed by the ruling Law and Justice party, already facing pressure and turmoil on several fronts.
No changes to abortion law before November 2019, says Polish government
Last week, Poland’s deputy Prime Minister Jaroslow Gowin said that the government won’t take any action to tighten abortion laws in the current parliamentary term, which runs until the next general elections scheduled for November 2019.
This announcement follows local reports that PiS leader and de facto leader of Poland Jaroslaw Kaczynski told the party, during a closed door meeting, not the try to push the issue of abortion for the time being. Quoting sources who leaked information of the private meeting to the Polish news agency, local media report that Kaczynski urged Law and Justice lawmakers to let the matter of abortion rest for now, and also gave them several guidelines and instructions to follow ahead of next year’s elections.
“Black Friday” protests earlier this year
Since coming to power in 2015, the ruling PiS party, which has close links to the Catholic church and ultra-conservative circles, tried several times to restrict cases which allows women to terminate their pregnancy. Currently, Poland already has one of the strictest abortion law in Europe and only allows it in three cases defined in Polish legislation: when the mother’s health is at risk, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or in case of fetal abnormality.
Last March, tens of thousands took to the streets of Warsaw and other Polish cities to protest against the government’s plan to tighten abortion laws. The bill, which was eventually dropped after the backlash it provoked, made it illegal to have an abortion in the third case (severe and irreversible damage to the fetus), which accounts for around 95% of all legal abortions today.
People opposing the law, which amounted for a near-total ban, said the bill would force many women into illegal terminations, which are already more widespread than legal ones (from 10.000 to 150.000, compared to less than 2.000 legal terminations, according to estimates). Many Polish women also travel to Germany to terminate their pregnancy.
“A black day for Polish women”
The bill, proposed by hardline conservative groups which claimed that most women terminated their pregnancy after their child is diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, sparked grave concerns among human rights group and international observers. Experts from the Council of Europe and the U.N. urged Polish lawmakers to reject the bill. Nils Muiznieks, the Council’s human rights commissioner, highlighted that “preventing women from accessing safe and legal abortion care jeopardizes their human rights”.
“This is a black day for Polish women”, said Krystyna Kacpura, executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “If the bill is passed, Polish women will die. We are treated as unneeded – we are just there to give birth, and if we give birth to a very sick child, we are left to bring the child up by ourselves without any help”.
To which the Stop Abortion group argued: “This isn’t just a text. This law concerns the lives of three human beings every day”. At that time, Kaczynski even said that “we will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name”.
Marching at the sound of slogans like “My uterus” is not your chapel”, Polish protesters also used the hashtag déjavu as one of their rallying cry, for this wasn’t the first attempt to limit their rights. To understand how many Polish women reconcile their Catholic faith with liberal positions on issues like abortion, you can read our interview published at the time of the protests.
Mass protests in 2016 against a near-total ban
The proposed changes of this year’s bill remained less restrictive than those discussed back in 2016, which could have led to a total ban except for cases where the mother’s life was in danger. However, the plan was also scrapped after triggering mass protests.
Although initially backed by the Catholic church, bishops eventually distanced themselves from the bill, which wasn’t sponsored by the ruling Law and Justice party but came, once again, from a citizens’ initiative that gathered nearly half a million signatures. Jaroslaw Gowin, already deputy Prime Minister at that time, had tried to reassure women saying “abortion will certainly not be banned when the woman is the victim of rape or if her health is in danger”.
Abortion law: a long-running issue in Polish society
As the Financial Times reminded us, “it is widely believed in the west that, because Poland is a Catholic country, restrictions on abortion must be universally supported. This is not so. In January, 37% of Poles supported the liberalization of the present abortion law, 43% supported the status quo. Only 15% backed a total ban”.
This growing opposition to tightened abortion laws is also linked to a change of attitude in Poland towards the church, whose credibility and moral authority have been dented by their proximity with politicians, and weakened by recent sex and abuse scandals. According to a June 2017 poll, only 30% of Poles consider the church as neutral.
Since 2015, PiS has used other recourse to restrict the rights of women to get an abortion: it ended funding for IVF treatment, and also passed a bill, approved by the president, making it mandatory for women to get a doctor’s prescription to be allowed to use the contraceptive pill.
But pro-choice advocates are fighting back. Even though it was rejected by MP’s before it reached the committee stage, lawmakers had to examine earlier this year a bill to liberalize abortion laws, designed to allow terminations of pregnancy until the 12th week and provide better access to medical care, emergency contraception and sex education.
All the signs suggest that, even though the issue might be put to rest for now, it’s just a matter of time before it resurfaces.