di Michela Viganò
On the 25th of October 2015 parliamentary elections were held in Poland and the official results proclaimed the PiS “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” (Law and Justice) party the winner. This new ruling party is known to be strongly right-winged, populist and Christian-conservative and, since 2015, it is trying to change the already limiting laws on abortion.
Currently, Poland’s very restrictive abortion laws approved in 1993 accept abortion just in three specific cases: when a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, when the fetus is seriously malformed, or when a pregnancy results from a criminal act.
A first attempt to pass legislation for a total ban on abortion was made in September 2016, when a bill signed by over 450,000 people was put to a vote in Parliament. In fact, the Constitution provides for an opportunity for citizens to introduce a bill by means of the so-called mechanism of popular initiative; yet such a bill requires the signatures of a group of at least 100 000 citizens having the right to vote in elections to the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament). The bill was designed to deny all access to abortion, even in cases of rape, fetus deformation, or danger to maternal life.
At the same time, a liberal feminist organization collected 250,000 signatures for the right to unconditional abortion until the twentieth week of pregnancy. Whereas the anti-abortion bill passed the commission stage and went on to a second reading, the pro-abortion bill was rejected. This caused a massive wave of protests all over the country with a pro-choice mobilization that quickly became known as the Black Protest (Czarny Protest), named after the black clothing of the protesters. On October 3, a Women’s Strike was organised and over 250,000 people participated in 150 Polish cities and in others abroad. Therefore, the far-right leading party PiS had to take a step back and not vote on the anti-abortion bill.
A similar situation happened this year: another popular bill was presented to the Parliament on the 10th of January and got through the parliamentary committee in March as the “Stop Abortion” bill. This is the latest attempt to change the law, which would further restrict the possibilities to legally terminating pregnancy, since it would ban abortion in cases where the fetus has a severe abnormality. On the 23rd of March 2018, tens of thousands of Polish citizens joined in different cities around the country to protest against the “Stop Abortion” bill.
According to official government statistics, in 2016 around 1088 abortions were legally performed in Poland, 1042 of them due to irreversible failure or incurable fetal disease. This means that if the bill pass, about 95% of these women would do it illegally, exposing themselves and the doctors who performed the abortion to criminal charges. It is believed that there are many more illegal abortions, with estimates fluctuating between 50,000 and 200,000, and most women travel abroad- to Slovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic- to get it performed.
In January 2018 another effort for liberalisation was made with the project “Save Women” which proposed the introduction of sexual education in schools, the sale of the morning-after pill without a prescription and the right to abortion without restrictions until the 12th week of pregnancy. Once again, the bill didn’t receive enough support in Parliament, since 29 deputies from the main opposition party Civic Platform (PO) abstained from voting.
This deteriorating situation recently called for the attention of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who stated on the 23rd March 2018 to be deeply concerned to learn that the Polish Sejm pursued the examination of a bill called “Stop Abortion”. It added that the project would prevent women from accessing safe and legal abortion care and it jeopardises their human rights.
The increasing concern for women’s rights in the country is shared by national and foreign NGOs and activists that are continuously demanding for a guarantee of women’s rights and freedoms in Poland.
P. Szelegieniec, Behind the ‘Black Protests’, The Struggle for Abortion Rights in Poland. In Monthly Review; Vol. 70, Fasc. 1, 2018: pp 45-59.
J. Hussein, J.. Cottingham, W. Nowicka & E. Kismodi, Abortion in Poland: politics, progression and regression. In Reproductive Health Matters, Vol. 26, 2018