Abortion Reform in Poland Faces Obstacles Despite Defeat of Right-wing Government
A convention of the Polish Left party, one of leading advocates for legalizing abortion.

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which championed the country’s restrictive abortion laws, was voted out of power last October, but the path to improving access to abortion is not fast or straight forward.

“First of all, we need accessible abortions and we need, which is extremely important, the decriminalisation of abortion support,” activist Agata Adamczuk told Health Policy Watch. She is from Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Gals Help Gals) Foundation, a Polish feminist NGO providing information on safe abortions. 

Yet, Parliamentary Speaker Szymon Hołownia says it’s not a good time to introduce abortion reform, the Polish Press Agency reports. According to Hołownia, parliamentarians may vote against any abortion reforms if they are placed on the agenda before the local government elections on 7 April, fearing reactions of more conservative voters.

“If we proceed after the [local] elections, the chances will be much greater. Talks and declarations about supporting the draft bills in the first reading will start,” said Hołownia, adding that discussion on a draft abortion reform Bill was set down for 11 April.

Coalition politics

Hołownia is leader of Polska 2050, a new Christian Democrat party,  and one of the three parties that make up the ruling coalition. The group is ambiguous in their stance towards reproductive rights, whereas the other two parties in ruling coalition, the New Left and Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, have made abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy one of their priorities.

“It’s a good first step, in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” Adamczuk highlighted.

Even if there is a law granting abortion on demand until the 12th week of pregnancy, in practice it likely won’t be respected “because we’ve already faced such situations”, she adds.

Last year, demonstrations were held in 60 cities in protest against the unnecessary deaths of women because hospitals were reluctant to abort pregnancies that endangered their lives, even though performing them would have been legal, Newsweek Poland reported.

However, the Civic Platform and the New Left remain optimistic that abortion rights are a necessary and realistic goal for the current term of the parliament.

“We have the right to and we want the draft bill on abortion to be finally proceeded in the Sejm,” said Anna Maria Żukowska, a leader of the New Left, during the party’s summit.

Yet a new Bill to make abortion access less restrictive is likely to face opposition of some parties in the Catholic country, including the possibility that President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned to PiS, may veto it. He has been quoted as saying that advocating abortion access is “demanding the right to kill”.

Abortion mostly forbidden – but still happening

Poland’s abortion laws are the second most restrictive in Europe, with only Malta reaching a lower score on legality and accessibility, according to the Abortion Policies Atlas.

A comparison of abortion-related policies in Europe. Poland with considerably more restrictive laws than most countries.

Performing the procedure is now legal only in cases of rape and where there is serious risk to the mother’s health. Even then, doctors are permitted conscientious objection to performing abortions, which further limits access to abortion.

In 2020, the politicised Constitutional Tribunal ruled that it was against the Polish Constitution to allow abortion if there was a serious deformation of the foetus.

As a result of this ruling, the number of legal abortions decreased tenfold, amounting to only about a hundred cases per year since 2020, according to Statista.

Yet the total annual number of abortions is estimated to be between 80,00 and 93,000. Numerous NGOs help provide information and organisational support for ordering abortion pills online or assisting women to schedule a surgical abortion abroad.

Lack of education 

Women’s protests following the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling are credited with helping to unseat the PiS party in the last parliamentary elections. The ruling coalition has made abortion on demand until the 12th week of pregnancy one of their top priorities.

Women’s Strike protests in Warsaw, 2020, against the constitutional tribunal sentence dramatically limiting access to abortions.

Even if the relaxation of abortion laws happens, it will do little to improve reproductive rights in Poland, according to Adamczuk. 

“Politicians should acknowledge the fact that simply changing the law will not automatically mean changing the situation for abortion accessibility. We need a more holistic revolution there,” she said.

“What we need is to do work at the ground level, to fight abortion stigma,” she stresses, pointing out that Polish medical circles are reluctant to provide abortion. 

The recent Polish Gynaecologists Association guidelines, for instance, say all other options should be tried before performing the procedure on a patient whose mental health is likely to suffer if they give birth.

Another crucial element is medical education: right now, no classes on abortion care are included in the gynaecologists’ curricula, Adamczuk says. 

Some sources highlight the causal link between the lack of education and the lack of accessibility. 

“If doctors receive the message that abortion is not a normal medical procedure during their studies, they will be more likely to carry on that opinion,” the activist added. “Performing abortions is almost exclusively our burden, of us activists, and most probably that won’t change in the nearest future.”

Decriminalising help

“We simply cannot be penalised for doing the job of the state,” Adamczuk highlighted, pointing out that decriminalising abortion help is one of the most urgent changes that need to happen. 

Last year, Polish abortion activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was found guilty of facilitating abortion and sentenced to eight months of community service. 

Although she declared that the court’s decision won’t stop her from continuing her work, such cases may have had a chilling effect on abortion access.

However, Wydrzyńska’s trial might have inspired another draft Bill currently waiting to be proceeded on decriminalising abortion support

The New Left has also proposed other Bills to advance women’s rights, including a change to the definition of rape and more favourable rules for maternity leave.

“We’re glad that abortion is the talk of the town right now, that there’s discussion about it,” says Adamczuk. “But just discussing is far too little.”

Image Credits: Lewica, Abortion Policies Atlas, Greenpeace Polska.

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