On October 22nd a new abortion ban ruling took place in Poland. The ruling came on behalf of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, banning abortions based on the grounds of foetal abnormalities. The new law has still not been announced but what caused thousands of Polish citizens to take to the streets in nationwide demonstrations?
The new abortion ban and the Polish constitution
The ruling of the new abortion law by the Constitutional Tribunal took place October 22nd. Previously the Polish law permitted abortions only due to; foetal abnormalities, if the pregnancy was a threat to the woman’s health, or the pregnancy was a result of incest or rape. A large majority of legal abortions, resulted from foetal abnormalities (1,074 out of 1,100 abortions). Abortions seen as “illegal” under the Polish law, have been estimated to be at 80-120 000 a year and around 25-33% of women have had an abortion. The recent court ruling states that abortions due to foetal abnormalities are in violation of the Polish Constitution. Since abortion bans of this type are further restricting women’s reproductive rights and access to abortions, it is not surprising that Polish citizens have taken to the streets in protest.
Even though the decision has not yet been published, it is seen by some as a political decision, a mere legal trick to postpone publishing the new ban. The Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, has called for discussions with the political opposition and protesters. The President Andrzej Duda, has proposed a slight change to the law and advocated for abortions only in cases of life-threatening birth malformalities, with the exclusion of Down’s syndrome. Such a compromise is not likely to satisfy either side of the ongoing debate. The far right will most probably not see it as enough and the protesters might see it as far enough.
Poland already has one of the strictest laws concerning abortions in the EU. In the mid 1990s a new law on abortion was adopted, without a referendum, leaving foetal abnormality as one of the few legal reasons to have an abortion. The politicians tightened the law, contrary to the public opinion and gave in to the power of the Catholic Church. A recent opinion poll showed that out of the 1000 people asked, 62% support abortion only under limited circumstances, only 22% think that abortions under any circumstances should be legal, while 11% do not support abortion at all.
The Law and Justice party’s stance on the new ban
The legal reform to tighten the abortion law was launched by the MPs of the governing Law and Justice party the year before. Coincidentally, a significant majority of the court’s judges happened to be nominated by the Law and Justice party itself. The Vice Prime Minister and party leader Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, stated that no other ruling could have been possible. Effectively using the pandemic as an excuse to enforce their political agenda and diminish people’s right to protest this new legislation.
“We have a difficult stage of the epidemic COVID19, (…) any forms of congregations with five or more people are prohibited. (…) demonstrations will most likely cost the lives of many people. Those who (…) participate in them, (…) they commit a crime”
Andrzej Duda stated that the evaluation of the regime should be through elections and not by ”street criteria” or the “targeting of churches”. The president also pointed towards the role of the state to provide women with sufficient help when giving birth to a child with serious foetal defects. Duda also claimed that the protests were due to the current situation of the pandemic, that people are scared for their health and jobs, rather than the abortion ban that they are in fact protesting.
Banned abortions and the adoption system
There is reason to believe that the abortion ban could lead to an increase in unsafe abortions in the country. Unsafe abortions performed under circumstances less than ideal, are a serious threat to women’s lives. For instance, in the case of Romania, where abortion was illegal from 1966-1989, deaths from abortions increased significantly. Maternal mortality overall increased from 85 per 100 000 live births in 1965 – to over 169 per 100 000 live births in 1989. 147 of those 100 000 were due to unsafe abortions, meaning about 10 000 deaths in those 23 years. This is only one case, but several others have also proven that making abortions illegal can have disastrous consequences for women’s own health.
This also brings about the question of what will await the children forced to be birthed. What will happen to those children in cases where the mother will be incapable of providing care? Or what kind of help will the mother receive if her partner, upon knowing that the child will have foetal defects –since that is what this new restriction specifically targets – decides to leave?
In a study by the Polish Supreme Audit Office back in 2018, it is stated that after the reform in 2012, the number of adoption centres dropped by over 30%. The Polish adoption system is under great pressure and the process of adopting a child is already a long one. In other words, a decrease in “legal” abortions could potentially lead to an increase in “unwanted” children in the adoption system. In cases where more children will be put up for adoption due to being born with foetal malformations.
The government will be forced to address why there was no referendum on the abortion issue. Both for the sake of national security in times of a pandemic, but also to ease unrest among the civil society and the general population. Equally important will be to solve the problem of unsafe abortions and an already overloaded adoption system. Even though the government now has decided to “pause” the abortion ban, it is hard to predict what will happen next. Seen as they already control the constitutional tribunal, there is not much hindering them from picking up the topic at a later date. All these aspects will have a huge impact on the Polish society at large.
Cover Photo by Zuza Ga?czy?ska
Master student of the "International Administration and Global Governance" programme at the University of Gothenburg. Currently writing her master thesis on democratic decline in Poland. Former intern at Sida.