Abortion Turmoil In Poland: Trading Women’s Rights For Political Goals

Women’s bodies have once more become battlefields

In summarizing the results of last year’s parliamentary elections in Poland I briefly mentioned that “the rule of Catholic conservatives might stand in opposition to respecting the rights of women “. It took less than a year for this prophecy to come true. Thousands of women in Poland are joining Black Protests to demonstrate against the newest radical anti-abortion law proposal.

Then and now: unsatisfying “abortion compromise”

During the Communist regime, and particularly from the 1960s, abortion was available on request. After 1989, the Polish transformation embraced reproductive rights too. Despite the determination of women’s organizations and owing to the massive influence of the Catholic Church, access to legal abortion was limited.

Polish abortion law today is one of the most restrictive in Europe. Termination of pregnancy is possible when the woman’s life or health is endangered, when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act or when the fetus is seriously malformed. In reality the situation is much more complicated. Polish doctors are granted a conscience clause that allows them not to provide certain medical services, like abortion, owing to their religion or beliefs. According to Polish law, a doctor unable to perform the procedure should refer the patient to another facility. As a result, many patients seeking help find it too late.

According to official statistics of the Ministry of Health, the number of legal abortions in 2015 was less than 2000, whereas it is estimated that abortion carried out underground together with “abortion tourism” to other countries, such as Germany or Slovakia, add up to 150,000 cases a year. This discrepancy has a very clear class dimension: limited access to legal abortion clearly excludes the poorest from safe procedures.

Reheating the abortion debate

The so-called “abortion compromise” reached in the 1990s is far from ideal: it has ever since been contested both by pro-choice organizations and the pro-life lobby allied with the Catholic Church. After the change of regime in Poland last year, the latter seem to have gathered momentum. In September 2016, two alternative civil law proposals on accessibility of abortion were voted on in the Sejm, the Polish parliament. A liberal draft submitted by Save Women initiative demanding free access to abortion, introduction of sexual education and refunding contraception was rejected. An alternative project called “Stop abortion”, submitted by Ordo Iuris foundation was referred to a relevant committee for advancing the dossier. Should this proposal pass, women will be punished with a prison sentence for having an abortion and any case of miscarriage will be investigated. The protection of pre-natal life will force women to give birth even if they were raped or they are carrying lethally damaged fetuses. As a result, some life-saving medical interventions, such as ante-natal screenings or fetal surgery, might have to be given up in practice because of potential penal consequences if they cause miscarriage. Some standard procedures, like terminating ectopic or molar pregnancies, will be performed only when life-threatening conditions finally occur. To sum up, such a law would not only become one of the most restrictive in the world, sending Polish women back in time to Ceausescu’s Romania, but it also seems defective owing to the introduction of imprecise terms that might in practice face medical staff with a dramatic choice: risking a prison sentence or saving lives.

Two sides of the barricade

This threat to women’s rights has caused a massive public outcry. The non-parliamentary Razem Party launched a Black Protest that went viral, not only on the Internet but also in the streets. Many celebrities became actively engaged. Women’s general strike was called for October 3rd, inspired by the legendary action of Icelandic women in 1975. This is very symbolic, illustrating clearly the throwback happening in Poland now: a second wave feminism-style flash mob is still up-to-date there, in the 21st century.

The pro-choice protest has reached the European Parliament that is staging a debate (today) on current developments in Poland. Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, warn against “a dangerous backward step for women and girls”. Meanwhile, the streets in Poland have been the scene of constant unrest since October 2015 when the PiS party took over again. So, the question arises: can this female wave of anger make any impression on those in power?

It is important to remember that, however loud it seems, the protest movement represents only a part of the society. Not all women feel represented: it was Joanna Banasiuk, a woman, that delivered the “Stop abortion” project to the Sejm. It was also women MPs that supported the abortion ban. The Catholic Church in Poland is officially demanding that every life is protected. So far, none of the Polish doctors’ associations has taken an official stance.

The heated debate has become vulgarized, detached from the very particular draft law in question. The disastrous quality of that debate was lately laid bare in a talk show, when seven male politicians discussed abortion as well as by the irreverent comment of Witold Waszczykowski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who reacted to the women’s strike by saying: “Let them play”.

Instrumentalising women’s rights for political profits

Women’s bodies have once more become battlefields. The question arises: why reheating this debate now? According to the polls, less than a third of Poles is in favour of liberalization of the current abortion law, whereas only one in ten is in favour of increasing the restrictions. Most of society backs the status quo. A conspiracy theory has it that the abortion debate coincided with the debate over CETA, a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. That agreement is strongly rejected by the Polish farmers and the right-wing national camp. A more realistic view is that the current abortion dispute might be a PiS strategy to deepen divisions within Polish society in order to keep their supporters mobilized. Last but not least, the most trivial explanation is that the PiS party is paying back electoral debts to their civil society backups, pro-life and Catholic organizations being among its pillars. Meanwhile, after nearly 100 000 people went on the streets on Monday in the latest black protests, Polish PM, Beata Szydło, called for cooling down the emotions, simultaneously scolding her colleagues for sarcastic comments and distancing the party from the anti-abortion project. Some say, however, that this female revolution might the key to overcome conservative government led by a woman.

Update: The Sejm overturned the ban in a vote on October 6.

This article was first published on socialeurope.eu.


Dr. Maria Skóra

Policy Fellow, Research Associate (Institut für Europäische Politik)
Maria Skóra is a Research Associate at the Institut für Europäische Politik and a policy fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum. Previously, she was head of the International Dialogue program at Das Progressive Zentrum. She holds a master's degree in sociology and a PhD in economics. 2018 Alumna of the Young Leaders Program at the Aspen Institute Central Europe in Prague. 2019 Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and AICGS, Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

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