Poland's Abortion Ban Explained
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
When it comes to politics, Polish people haven’t had it easy. After being invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939 and becoming the epicenter of the European Jewish Genocide, Poland became a Satelite State of the Soviet Union until the communist regime collapsed in 1989.
Poland transitioned to a western-style liberal democracy in 1991, and subsequently joined the European Union in 2004. Just over a decade ago, Poland was named as one of Europe's promising young democracies. Things seemed to be moving forward in Poland for a while, but the rise of right-wing populist party PIS (the Law and Justice Party) has seen Poland invariably move backwards. So far backwards, that some say Poland could soon see a return to totalitarianism.
PIS has captured Poland’s courts and cracked down on the Polish Media. Over 100 regions in Poland have declared themselves to ‘LGBT free zones.’ The party claims to be founded on Catholic values and vows to protect Poland from ‘new dangers,’ yet the push towards ultra conservative policies has been described as a direct rebellion to the values of the European Union, and more seriously, a direct threat to human rights.
One of the most contentious issues this year has been in regard to abortion. Poland already had strict laws regarding women’s access to abortions. Women have been able to gain access to an abortion if the pregnancy posed a risk to the mother’s life, if it was the result of incest or rape, or if the fetus had severe abnormalities. These laws are already the strictest in European Union, with abortions being accessible in other European states for a variety of social and health reasons.
In 2016, PIS sought to impose new laws where all three of these exceptions would be removed. The Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński famously said in 2016 that, “All pregnancies, even when a child is sure to die, should end with the mother giving birth so the child can be baptised, buried and given a name.”
PIS proposed that the women who receive abortions, and the doctors that perform them, should be imprisoned for up to five years. Major protests later dubbed ‘Black Monday’ erupted on the streets across the nation in October of 2016, and so the ban did not end up going ahead.
However, in October 2020, PIS took a new approach. They sent the issue to Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, which is supposed to be an independent court that is able to decide whether a proposed law is in line with Poland's constitution. However, 14 out of 15 judges at the Tribunal are affiliated with PIS. The court ruled in October that fetal abnormality could no longer be used as a justification for an abortion. In Poland, fetal abnormalities are the reason for 98% of abortions. This means that access to safe abortions could soon be decimated across Poland.
Despite the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets to protest the new ban. The protests were the largest in Poland since the fall of communism. Due to protests, the new law has not officially been legislated yet, but the rest of the world has taken notice. The Freedom House Index - an independent organisation that promotes human rights and democracy - no longer labels Poland as a full democracy. And what’s more concerning for Poland, is that the reforms are risking their membership to the European Union (EU). Poland receives the highest percentage of EU funding than any other state in the EU. Therefore, violating the core values of the European Union could result in economic backlash from the European Commission. In a time of crisis, this is not good news for Poland.
So, why is PIS so adamant about abortion reform? As summarised well by Amanda Taub from the New York Times, “Gender equality would disrupt a political arrangement in the country that has been set for decades: a symbiotic relationship in which the Catholic Church lends its authority to politicians in exchange for the government’s enforcing ecclesiastical morality, including by restricting abortion.”
I spoke to my friend Ania, a Polish woman now living in Copenhagen. Ania explains that regardless of an individuals views on what the abortion law should be, the PIS thinks they have the morally superior solution “for every single woman in the country, Catholic or not, healthy or not, with mental traumas or not.”
Ania goes on to tell me that the Polish women’s strike in Copenhagen was the first strike she had ever been to. “It gives me hope seeing crowds (CROWDS, these are the biggest strikes since 1989) of young (and elderly as well) women who stand up to [the Government] and protect their rights. Even in smaller towns that have close, conservative communities. I believe the abortion law change was the last straw, and women are now fighting against hate, injustice and lies.”
Although the law has been delayed, the fight isn’t over. Let’s hope for the best. To the women in Poland, we’re rooting for you!