The battle over abortion rights in Poland is not over

Anne-Marie Kramer

Protesters take to the streets on ‘Black Monday’ in Warsaw on October 3. Rafal Guz/EPA

After a week during which mass street protests erupted in Poland against a proposed new law banning abortions, on October 6 politicians backtracked on the plans and the parliament voted to reject the law. But, despite the victory for pro-choice campaigners, Poland is still left with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe – and further restrictions have been proposed.

Abortion is currently only legally permissible under certain strict conditions in Poland. If the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the life or health of a woman, if prenatal examination indicates heavy, irreversible damage of the embryo, or if an incurable illness threatens the embryo’s viability, then it is legal. It is also legal if there is justified suspicion that the pregnancy is the result of an illegal act – but that must be confirmed by a prosecutor.

The law was briefly relaxed in 1996 to allow for abortions on social grounds until the 12th week of pregnancy. But that decision was ruled unconstitutional a year later and the country reverted to previous legislation. The Federation for Women and Family Planning has estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions are carried out each year, while legal abortions number only around 1,000 per annum.

Despite this, the “Stop Abortion” coalition and conservative Christian think-tank Ordo Iuris, backed by Roman Catholic Bishops, collected more than 400,000 signatures to submit a bill to the Polish parliament that would ban abortion completely. This included criminalising miscarriage in “suspicious” circumstances – both for the pregnant woman and anybody assisting her – and in effect preventing pre-natal tests altogether. Meanwhile, a liberalisation bill was tabled by the “Save Women” pro-choice coalition, that would change the law to allow abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy.

In late September, the Polish parliament rejected the liberalisation bill and passed the restrictive abortion bill to its Justice and Human Rights Committee for further consideration. Although the bill was not sponsored by the conservative, Church-affiliated ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, every single one of its deputies voted in favour.

Anger mounts

What was not anticipated was the scale of resistance and protest and level of anger manifested on “Black Monday” on October 3. In dreadful weather, Polish women across almost 200 town and cities in Poland, and across the world, took to the streets to protest. They took their inspiration from a strike by women in Iceland in 1975, when 90% of women refused to work, clean or look after children in protest at discrimination in the workplace.

Many employers sanctioned a day off and shops, museums and restaurants were closed. The protests in the heart of Warsaw paralysed the Polish capital. Protesters wore black clothes and waved black flags to signify the loss of reproductive rights and the future deaths of Polish women under a complete ban on abortion.

At first, it seemed that the highly visible protests would be dismissed as irrelevant. Anti-government protests organised by the civil movement KOD (Committee for the Defence of Democracy), had attracted ten times the level of support in May, and been ignored by PiS. Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, initially trivialised the Black Monday protests as “fun” for women, and an inappropriate way to seek to influence debate.

However, in a sign that PiS was responsive to the scale and ferocity of the protests, prime minister Beata Szydło publicly reprimanded Waszczykowski for his remarks, and sought to distance the government from the bill. This was despite her personal support for it – and the support of the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Two days after the protests, science and higher education minister Jarosław Gowin stated that the protests had forced a rethink and taught the government “humility”.

Opinion shift

What PiS had underestimated was the level of anger provoked by the legislation, the capacity of the campaign to mobilise young women and the consequent dramatic shift in public opinion around abortion. Before the protests, around 70% of Poles supported the existing so-called “compromise” law. A recent IPSOS telephone poll of 1,001 people conducted between 28 and 30 September showed the level of support for the status quo had fallen to 47%.

Meanwhile, only 10% support a further restriction of abortion law, with an unparalleled surge of support to almost 40% for abortion to be liberalised to include “difficult circumstances” (on socio-economic grounds) of the pregnant woman. Support for the government also dropped significantly to its lowest levels since last year’s elections and opinion polling also shows that PiS supporters are divided among themselves on the question of abortion.

MPs voted overwhelmingly to reject the bill. Pawel Supernak/EPA

This dramatic shift led to a volte-face by PiS members, who hurriedly sought to distance themselves from the proposed legislation. The Justice and Human Rights Committee recommended that the legislation be rejected and this was followed by the Polish parliament rejecting the bill outright by 352 votes to 58.

More restrictions on cards

But the question of access to abortion is by no means settled. PiS is working on its own abortion bill, which is likely to propose that so-called “eugenic abortions” – abortions on the grounds of foetal congenital deformity – to be outlawed. Given that out of 1,044 legal abortions in Poland in 2015, 1,000 were permitted on these grounds, this would still result in a virtual ban on abortion.

Meanwhile, another bill supporting a complete ban but with no punishment for the pregnant woman, collected 160,000 signatures and has already been submitted to the Polish parliament by the Polish Federation of Movements for the Defence of Life. It remains to be seen whether this bill will be debated in parliament.

But it seems certain that further restrictions will be proposed – and just as certain that further protests will take place. A further women’s strike has been called for the October 24 across the whole of Poland, with pro-choice protesters determined to maintain the pressure on the government.

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Anne-Marie Kramer has previously received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to research reproductive politics in Poland.

University of Nottingham provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.