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Poland abortion ban, women’s reproductive rights continue to be a political battlefield

A bill to liberalise abortion law and partially remove restrictions imposed by Poland’s abortion ban was rejected by its parliament. Instead, it voted to continue working on a proposal to further limit women’s reproductive rights.

New legislation in Poland, introduced under the telling title of “stop abortion”, aims to outlaw pregnancy interruption procedures carried out due to foetal damage, which account for over 95 per cent of all legally performed abortions in the country. “We will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die or is strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name,” Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party commented.

Save women bill rejected

At the same time, the parliament rejected the draft version of the “save women” bill put forth by a pro-choice grassroots movement, prompting a wave of criticism from civil society. The bill proposed legalisation of abortion until the end of the first trimester and a limited access to abortion following that period. Additionally, the bill aimed to improve other aspects of women’s reproductive health, like access to sex education and emergency contraception. 

Polish abortion ban, what the law says  

Abortion law in Poland is already one of the most restrictive with regards to women’s reproductive rights. In fact, abortion isn’t legal in most cases, and there are currently only three exceptions. These are, firstly, if women’s health or life are in danger. Secondly, abortion can be performed if there is a severe and irreversible damage to the foetus. Lastly, women are allowed to opt for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Consequently, even though official statistics register about 1,000 abortions annually, non-governmental organisations estimate that each year about 150,000 Polish women terminate pregnancies illegally. 

What the Catholic church says

The strong position of the Catholic church on the Polish political arena additionally challenges the defence of women’s reproductive rights. More than 96 per cent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic. The official stance of the church on women’s rights, gender studies and sex education is perhaps best encapsulated in a pastoral letter from 2013. In the letter, Polish bishops warn against spreading “gender ideology” and implementing sexual education in schools, as they supposedly lead the youth “to become regular customers of pharmaceutical, erotic, pornographic, paedophile and abortion enterprises”. Referred to as “sexual subjugation”, sex education can also be a cause of “other addictions (alcoholism, drug abuse, hazard) and harm inflicted to oneself or others (paedophilia, rapes, domestic violence),” according to the clergy’s message. 

Read more: President Duda vetoes judicial reform in Poland threatening courts’ independence

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Over 300,000 people listen to Pope Benedict XVI address the faithful at the Basilica of the Black Madonna in Jasna Gora Monastery in 2006, Czestochowa, Poland © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Poland is a signatory to a variety of international conventions that impose the obligation to implement sexual education conveying religiously neutral and scientifically unbiased knowledge. Defying that notion, the core curriculum of “preparation for family life” taught in Poland as a non-compulsory subject since 2009 focuses on so-called “chastity education” and the importance of complying with traditional gender roles. 

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A Polish-American pilgrim from Chicago, Illinois holds a portrait of late Pope John Paul II as she attends a mass to celebrate the first anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2006 in the Cathedral of St. John in Laterano in Rome, Italy © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

As well as that, with the Church’s support, since 2014 about 4,000 medical practitioners in Poland have signed the Declaration of Faith that recognises “the primacy of God’s laws over human laws”. The list of signees includes the current Health Minister Łukasz Szumowski. The Declaration proclaims that “if a person acts by their own will to negatively alter conception and bring about death, then he or she not only violates the basic commandments of the Decalogue, committing acts such as abortion, euthanasia, contraception, artificial insemination, and/or in vitro fertilisation, but rejects The Creator as well”.

Under the Polish conscience clause, healthcare providers can refuse to perform certain medical services on the basis of their religious beliefs. The declaration in itself hasn’t brought about any legal changes, yet it has symbolically legitimised stigmatisation of Polish women seeking medical help in the area of reproductive health. 

Black protest

It isn’t the first attempt to restrict women’s reproductive rights. In October 2016, thousands of Polish women joined the national strike and took to the streets to oppose a bill proposing a blanket ban on abortion, eventually forcing the government to step back. Poles protested under a common slogan of “black protest”, wearing clothes of this colour as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights. 

Read more: Poland, thousands of women are protesting against a proposed abortion ban

“The protest was bigger than anyone expected. People were astonished,” commented activist Agnieszka Graff back in 2016. “Warsaw was swarming with women in black. It was amazing to feel the energy and the anger, the emotional intensity was incredible”.

Women’s voices being heard

While the strike didn’t disrupt the economy, the resistance women mounted in 2016 and public debate surrounding it seem to have affected public opinion on reproductive rights. Following the black protests, polls registered an increased support for abortion of about 5-7 per cent. This shows, in turn, that although no one is ready to lay down the weapons in the battle over women’s bodies just yet, Polish society is indeed capable of listening. 

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