Protests Over Poland’s Abortion Ruling

Demonstrators in Warsaw on October 25, 2020. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Shayna Blatt
December 17, 2020

Poland’s Act on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus, and Conditions for Pregnancy Termination, in place since 1993, has allowed abortions solely when the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy, when prenatal testing indicates that the fetus is severely impaired, or when “there are reasons to suspect that the pregnancy is a result of an unlawful act.” The country’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, a non-governmental organization that advocates liberal reproductive rights, estimates that up to 200,000 Polish women, or one percent of the country’s female population, receive abortions illegally or abroad each year. 

However, Poland’s abortion regulations recently became more stringent. On October 22, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, a fifteen-justice constitutional court with two female members, ruled to ban abortions “when prenatal tests or other medical grounds indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease,” according to Polish News. In 2019, according to data from Poland’s Ministry of Health, 1,074 of the 1,110 legal abortions recorded in the country were attributed to such cases. 

Over the past two months, hundreds of thousands of Polish women have taken to the streets in Warsaw and other cities to protest the October ruling. Malgorzata Szulecka, a lawyer for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, argues, “This is a totally unjustified decision that will lead to inhumane treatment of women.” She explained that it was unfair to make any woman carry a pregnancy with fetal defects to full term, as the ruling will require. 

Protestors have also expressed grievances against Poland’s conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has held the most seats in the Polish parliament since 2015. Some believe that the party, whose leadership saw an attempt at a near-total abortion ban in 2016, inappropriately influenced the Constitutional Tribunal to make the October ruling. This sentiment was echoed by a resolution passed by the European Union’s parliament on November 26 that described the ruling as an example of “the political takeover of the judiciary and the systemic collapse of the rule of law in Poland.” On December 13, hundreds of protestors demonstrated before the residence of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the PiS party. 

A survey of a representative sample of 1,017 Poles commissioned by the Warsaw-based Do Rzeczy magazine found that fifty-six percent of respondents supported protests against the October ruling. However, respondents did not necessarily favor a lenient attitude towards abortion: while only fourteen percent advocated further restrictions on abortion, only nineteen percent favored its liberalization. This nuanced perspective may be attributed to the primarily Catholic nation’s recent history. During Nazi-Soviet occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945, the Nazi Race and Resettlement Office encouraged birth control and abortions on Polish women as a means of ensuring their availability as a source of labor and “limiting” the “spread” of the Slavic people. As a result, while abortions on German women remained strictly regulated, tens of thousands of abortions on Polish female workers likely took place over the course of the occupation.1 Later, when Poland was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, a 1956 law permitted abortions “on demand” and resulted in as many as 400,000 abortions in 1962 alone.2 Poland’s aforementioned 1993 abortion act, passed four years after the fall of Communism in the country and the transition to a parliamentary republic, explicitly repealed the 1956 law and effectively ended a period in which abortion regulations were shaped by foreign interests. Perhaps this historical context elucidates why sixty-seven percent of the aforementioned Do Rzeczy poll respondents opposed the October, 2020 abortion ruling but favored maintaining Poland’s pre-existing regulations, as established in 1993, instead.

In response to unrest, Polish President Andrzej Duda submitted legislation to the Polish parliament that would allow for less stringent interpretation of the October ruling. Instead of advocating the ban of abortions in all cases of prenatal testing indicative of fetal defects, Duda supports banning abortions specifically in cases in which prenatal testing points to the presence of Down’s Syndrome in fetuses. The termination of pregnancies made nonviable by other fetal defects, he believes, should not be banned. He explained that “when there are so-called fatal defects… that cause the child to die immediately after birth, this is a very special situation” but that “we have to work on solutions so that children with, for example, Down’s Syndrome are protected.” While the October ruling has yet to be published, and is thus not currently in effect, the controversy continues.

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