Poland’s Abortion Rollback: The Uncertain State of Reproductive Rights in Europe

This past month thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Warsaw carrying wire hangers and posters featuring anatomical diagrams of the uterus. In Poland, a deeply Catholic country boasting some of the most draconian anti-abortion legislation in the Europe, women may receive an abortion if they can prove their pregnancy is a product of a rape or incest or would result in serious health problems, as well as in cases of severe fetal deformity. Currently, around 1,000 to 2,000 Polish women receive legal abortions on an annual basis, although counting those who travel abroad or receive notorious ‘back alley’ procedures, the number may be as high as 150,000. The men and women who descended on Poland’s capital city were protesting proposed legislation that would amount in a virtual ban of all abortions in Poland, barring circumstances where there is an immediate and discernible threat to the mother’s life.

Image courtesy of Jaap Arriens © 2016, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Jaap Arriens © 2016, some rights reserved.

The proposed legislation is the brainchild of the anti-abortion group Stop Abortion, which introduced it in April and quickly earned the endorsement of the Catholic Church. Their crusade began picking up steam in May, when rallies were held in over 140 Polish cities. Their petition quickly earned over 450,000 signatures, far surpassing the 100,000 signatures necessary for parliamentary discussion, and received the endorsement of Poland’s governing, right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. On September 22, Parliament began debate to overturn the 1993 law that permits the current exceptions to the anti-abortion law, and which PiS Prime Minister Beata Syzdlo regards as overtly liberal.

While the new law would technically allow a woman to receive an abortion if her life is at risk, it might become much more difficult to administer this life-saving procedure in reality. As the law would also ramp up criminal charges for abortion providers who, wittingly or unwittingly, ’cause the death of a conceived child’, doctors would have little incentive to perform necessary pregnancy terminations when it could result in up to five years of jail time. In the parliamentary debate in April, Professor Romauld Debski emphasized the staggering burden that this legislation would place on medical professionals forced to make fateful and personally risky decisions and said, ‘If there is an ectopic pregnancy and bleeding, I can perform a termination. But if there is no bleeding-no immediate risk to life-I have to wait until she starts dying’. Doctors would be faced with proving that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother, putting them in a position where legal repercussions may outweigh concerns over the health of their patients. The women who receive the procedure could additionally be subjected to prison sentences ranging from three months to five years.

PiS has defended the legislation despite public backlash. Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak claimed that four out of five abortions are performed when the fetus has Down Syndrome and that the procedure amounts to Nazi ‘eugenics’, purging those with mental or physical disability. Nonetheless, the party is well aware of the public backlash that the Stop Abortion bill is causing, and may seek to stall it by allowing it to sit in a parliamentary committee indefinitely.

Despite the fact that the bill is still sitting in parliament, it is already affecting the reproductive rights of Polish women. In the conservative and heavily Catholic region of Podkarpackie, all hospitals and doctors have signed a ‘conscientious objector‘ letter exempting them from performing abortions. This makes it virtually impossible for women living in the region to receive an abortion, and they are now forced to travel or receive an illegal abortion if their life is at risk. In this instance, it is clear that Stop Abortion is bolstering the already strong pro-life movement in Poland, making further reproductive rollbacks likely.

Public opinion on the issue seems to be quite divergent from that of PiS, the Church and the pro-life lobby. While seven out of ten Poles believe that abortion is morally wrong, few would like to see a complete ban and around two-thirds to three-quarters of the country would like the law to remain in its current form. Three former First Ladies have come out against the proposal in an open letter, stating: ‘Every abortion is a tragedy, but we should not aggregate this tragedy by forcing them to give birth to a child of rape or forcing them to risk their own life or health or that of their child’. While the 1993 legislation was seen as something of a compromise between the will of the Church and the will of the people, this fragile truce is at a breaking point.

Stop Abortions’ bill would make Poland the second country in the European Union that does not allow abortion in cases of rape, incest and fetal deformity. In the region with some of the world’s most liberal abortion laws, Malta is the only country with an outright ban on the procedure. This issue is almost certain to complicate Poland’s standing within the EU. The country has already faced three European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings criticizing its stance on abortion, most notably in the case of a fourteen-year-old rape victim who was repeatedly denied termination of the resultant pregnancy and was removed from the custody of her mother. The ECJ ruling confirmed that health care providers claims of ‘conscientious objection’ were not grounds for denying women the already limited reproductive rights accorded to them within Polish law.

Despite the chiding of the ECJ, the EU’s reproductive rights policy is far from clear. Brussels has repeatedly insisted that abortion is under the jurisdiction of domestic law. While it feels comfortable delivering judgments that Poland failed to fulfill within domestic law, they staunchly refuse to define the parameters of this law. The ‘Estrela report‘, which defined safe abortion as a human right, was quickly defeated by the European Parliament’s eurosceptic and conservative contingencies. Despite the fact that the report did not prescribe abortion on demand and would not be binding on member states, it was met with widespread controversy and condemnation within the Parliament.

It is highly unlikely that the EU will be clarifying its foggy stance on abortion anytime in the near future. In the meantime, the health and livelihood of Europe’s women hangs in the balance as Poland’s parliament gambles with their reproductive rights. Until the EU decides to set clear goals and parameters for reproductive health in Europe, including the decriminalization of abortion in circumstances of rape, incest and risk to the mother’s life, women’s human rights will continue to be subject to the internal bargaining of national parliaments.