A legislative initiative1 introduced to the Polish Parliament by several pro-life organisations11 in August 2016, outlined an almost complete ban on abortion in the country.
Even if a woman was raped, molested by a relative, risked her health by giving birth or carried a fetus with severe or fatal deformities, she would not be allowed to terminate the pregnancy. Only one exception was made – for situations when pregnancy was actually threatening the mother’s life.
In late September the bill passed the first reading and was transferred to one of the parliamentary commissions to be revised. The move sparked outrage all over the country, and up to 140,000 people, women and men, spilled out onto the streets of Polish cities and towns, in protest against the ultimate restrictions2.
Ten days later, Parliament caved and rejected the bill. However, human rights activists believe it is too early to celebrate the victory. On one hand, because the situation with abortions in Poland remains tense with the partial ban still in place; on the other, because the fight is clearly not over.
The notoriously conservative Polish government hasn’t changed its anti-choice stance, says Anna Błuś, Central and Eastern Europe researcher for the Amnesty International human rights group. “They have just realised that politically it was a bad time for them to go forward with such a restrictive initiative,” she told Legal Dialogue.
“So I think everyone in Poland realises that this is not the last word from the government. They will come up with other proposals to restrict abortion in other way.”
Winning the Battle
The controversial bill was a civic initiative, put together by the conservative advocacy group Ordo Iuris and the Stop Abortion coalition. A petition supporting the bill gathered at least 250,000 signatures (its authors claim it was 450,000 signatures, but not all of them were recognised as legitimate), which is twice that required for it to be considered by Parliament.
On 22 September the bill passed the first reading with flying colours. Not only members of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) voted for it, but also opposition parties, such as Civic Platform, Polish Peasant Party and the liberal Modern party. In addition to an almost complete ban on abortion, it outlined a five-year prison term for women who terminated their pregnancy illegally, introduced liability for miscarriages and basically outlawed prescription birth control medications.
Three days later, Poland exploded in outrage. Millions of posts, tagged #czarnyprotest or #blackprotest, filled social networks. Women rallied in front of government institutions. Some politicians wore black in solidarity with the protesters. Harsh slogans – “My uterus, my decision”, “This legislation is a miscarriage”, “It is time to abort this government”, and similar – and pictures of a coat-hanger, symbol of the barbaric self-abortion technique practised at the beginning of 20th century, seemed to be everywhere.
On , 3 October, women all over the country went on a mass strike. They took a day off work (in many cases, encouraged by sympathetic employers) and gathered on the streets of Polish cities and towns. Owners of cafes and restaurants offered them free coffee and tea, and universities replaced lessons by female professors absent from work with lectures on women’s rights.3
In the afternoon, the strike turned into one of the largest street protests Poland has seen in recent years, Błuś from Amnesty International told Legal Dialogue. According to various estimates, up to 140,000 people participated in them – both men and women, pensioners and teenagers. “Polish women were never as vocal before about their own rights,” the researcher said.
Two days later, on 5 October, PiS moved to reject the bill. Thousands of women sighed with relief: the battle many had considered hopeless was won. However, the bigger war was still to be won.
Losing the War
Poland is one of the few countries where abortion is banned, at least partially. Existing legislation, adopted in 1993, allows termination of a pregnancy if the woman’s life or health are in danger, if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if there is severe or fatal fetal impairment.
In reality, pregnant women legally eligible for termination often stumble upon another major obstacle – the so-called “conscience clause”. It is a document doctors sign in stating their refusal to perform legal abortions because of their personal views or religious beliefs.
According to Polish NGOs, a lot of doctors sign the “conscience clause”. “In some provinces in the south of Poland there are hospitals where all doctors have signed the ‘conscience clause’. So if a woman wants to access termination that is well within her legal rights, she will have to travel elsewhere,” Błuś explains.
Officially, as few as 1,000 legal abortions are carried out in Poland each year, the researcher says. When it comes to illegal underground procedures, however, the number is much higher: human rights organisations on the ground estimate it at 150,000 operations annually4.
The move to ban abortion completely is not new for Poland, Błuś says. Pro-life groups have been very active in their attempts to put the ban forward for the past 20-30 years. The recent attempt got so far only because the current Polish government is quite conservative and has publicly supported pro-lifers.
“Even after rejecting the bill, [the parliament] rushed to assure people that they were still very much pro-life,” Błuś says. “[They also] hinted at restricting abortion further, but probably not that far.”
On the heels of abolishing the bill, the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński made a statement that has left many in awe. He said his party wanted women to give birth to babies even if they are severely deformed – so that they can be baptised, be given a name and have a proper funeral.5
Several other party members also mentioned the negative phenomenon of “eugenic abortions” – for example, women aborting babies with Down’s syndrome. Błuś says: “So my anticipation is that future proposals on restricting abortion might outlaw terminating a pregnancy with severe or fatal fetal abnormalities.”
Are Polish women ready to protest more? Yes, the researcher adds: “Their awareness about their rights has been increased to a level I have never seen.”
In Other Conservative Countries
The protest in Poland coincided with pro-choice marches and rallies in Ireland, where abortion is also illegal and women go to jail for performing them. Under the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution, adopted after a referendum in 1983, a woman can terminate her pregnancy there only if there is a risk to her life. Those who carry out illegal abortions – both pregnant women and medical specialists who assist them – face up to 14 years in prison.6
Every year thousands of Irish men and women take to the streets to protest against the amendment. “Repeal the 8th” is the main slogan of the rallies, which this year took place in more than 20 cities around the world, organised by Ireland’s diasporas.7
Around the same time the Russian Orthodox Church also voiced its support for a possible abortion ban: during one of his public events, Patriarch Kirill signed a petition for banning abortion and “morning after” pills. The Partriarch’s move was supported by Russia’s Islamic High Council and conservative government officials. “The civilized world has been against such a thing as abortion for several years now,” said Russian children’s rights ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova, founder of a pro-life NGO. “We support this position, but at the same time we think that this problem requires a complex solution.”8
Human rights advocates disagreed. “Abortions are not the reason, they are a consequence of awful economy and worsening life conditions, growing poverty, alcoholism, deteriorating health of the nation. Abortion is a moral choice of a woman and not someone who decided to tell her how she should live her life,” women’s rights activist Alyona Popova wrote on her Facebook page.9
However, just like all the previous calls for banning abortion in Russia, this one hasn’t turned into a legislative initiative. Russia remains a country with one of the highest abortion rates in the world.10
[ + ]
|1.||Draft of the bill on the website of Ordo Iuris conservative organization: http://www.ordoiuris.pl/pliki/dokumenty/stop_aborcji_2016.pdf|
|2.||Маша Макарова, “Запретить нельзя разрешить”, Opendemocracy.net, 18.10.2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/masza-makarowa/polski-serial-zaprety-abortov|
|3.||Маша Макарова, “Запретить нельзя разрешить”, Opendemocracy.net, 18.10.2016 https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/masza-makarowa/polski-serial-zaprety-abortov|
|4.||Anna Błuś, A dangerous backward step for women and girls in Poland, Amnesty.org, 19.09.2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/a-dangerous-backward-step-for-women-and-girls-in-poland/|
|5.||Kaczyński: “Chcemy, by kobiety rodziły, nawet jeśli dziecko jest mocno zdeformowane. By zostało ochrzczone,” Gazeta.pl Wiadomosci, 12.10.2016, http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114884,20825799,kaczynski-chcemy-by-kobiety-rodzily-nawet-jesli-dziecko.html|
|6.||Kitty Holland, Abortion law: what comes next?, The Irish Times, 27.07.2013, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/abortion-law-what-comes-next-1.1476187|
|7.||Padraic Halpin, Thousands march in Dublin, abroad for Irish abortion rights, Reuters.com, 24.09.2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ireland-abortion-idUSKCN11U0J2|
|8.||Lenta.ru, Детский омбудсмен выступила за запрет абортов в России, 28.09.2016, https://lenta.ru/news/2016/09/28/kuznetsova_za_zapret_abortov/|
|9.||Aлена Попова, 28.09.2016, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1251422188211652&set=a.216699455017269.56626.100000316494232&type=3&theater|
|10.||Fiona Clark, Russia ponders restrictions on abortion rights, DW.com, 14.06.2015, http://www.dw.com/en/russia-ponders-restrictions-on-abortion-rights/a-18509939|
|11.||Conservative advocacy group Ordo Iuris, the Stop Abortion coalition|