January 12, 2016
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Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Several parties vying in national elections on Oct. 15 are competing for conservative Catholic voters by promising new laws that could put women's lives at risk.
In 2020, Poland was rocked by mass protests when the country’s Constitutional Tribunal declared abortions in the case of severe fetal illness or deformity illegal. This was one of only three exceptions to Poland’s ban on abortions, which now only applies in cases of sexual assault or when the life of the mother is at risk.
Since the 2020 ruling, several women have filed complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after giving birth to children with severe fetal abnormalities, many of whom do not survive long after birth. One woman working at John Paul II hospital in the Southern Polish town of Nowy Targ told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that a patient was forced to give birth to a child suffering from acrania — a lethal disorder where infants are born without a skull.
However, even in cases where abortion is technically legal, hospitals and medical professionals in Poland still often refuse to perform the procedure, citing moral objections.
At the same hospital in Nowy Targ, a scandal emerged when a pregnant woman, known only as Dorota, was admitted in her fifth month of pregnancy after her water broke early this past July. Doctors at the hospital prioritized saving her fetus over her; she died from septic shock three days later. Her fetus died as well, a few hours earlier. Dorota’s family members who were present at the hospital describe a situation of medical malpractice. They claim Dorota was not administered proper tests and did not receive appropriate care.
Dorota was one of seven women to die after the 2020 abortion restrictions were passed.
Dorota’s husband, Marcin, says the family was not informed about her true condition, and that neither she nor her loved ones were allowed to make a choice.
Dorota was one of seven women to die after the 2020 abortion restrictions were passed. Her death sparked protests in several Polish cities, bringing thousands of people together under the slogan “Not one more”.
Many Poles, including ruling party leaders, remain vehemently opposed to abortion for religious reasons. Though the number of people practicing the faith, especially among younger Poles, have been dropping, on paper Poland remains 84% Catholic. It is also one of only two EU countries (along with Italy) to have a formal agreement with the Catholic Church, in spite of its constitutional separation between Church and State.
The blurred lines between the church and the state have also allegedly impacted hospitals. According to the religious portal Wiara.pl, the Catholic curia in Poland ordered some hospitals bearing the name of the Polish pope, John Paul II, to sign pledges that they would not carry out abortions on their grounds.
September 6, 2023, Wroclaw, Poland: Protestors rally against religious people who disrupt the proceedings of one of the few women-friendly public gynecology and obstetric wards in Poland.
While the ruling party continues to hold tight to its anti-abortion commitments, a far-right challenger, Konfederacja, is pushing for them to be even more restrictive, by removing the abortion exception for fetuses conceived as a result of sexual assault.
“We are in favor of removing the exception for rape”, Konfederacja candidate Kielce Michał Wawer said in a debate on TVN 24. “A child who is the result of rape, which is a terrible crime and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent, is not guilty of anything”. The party wishes to facilitate the adoption process as well, claiming that just because a woman has to carry a pregnancy to term does not mean that she has to raise the child.
Sławomir Mentzen, the party’s leader, also defended eliminating the exception. “I understand such a situation is an enormous tragedy, but you cannot kill innocent people,” he said.
In small steps, PiS is simply taking away Polish women's dignity.
Several women running for election on a Konfederacja ticket also support the measure, including Anna Brylka, who wants to remove all exception to the abortion ban. In the TVN24 debate, she argued that this is because she has "pro-national" views and believes that the "community" needs to survive.
Members of the Polish opposition have noted a shift in the last four years when it comes to women’s rights in Poland. “In small steps, PiS is simply taking away Polish women's dignity”, Agata Kobylińska, a second-time Polish opposition candidate, told Wysokie Obcasy magazine. To her, this is a primary motivation she is running for relection. “I cannot come to terms with the fact that someone thinks that we, women, are not able to make decisions for ourselves”, she said.