Three years after a landmark ruling severely restricted abortion rights in Poland and sparked massive protest movements, the public mood has shifted in favor of liberalizing the law. With a centrist political party poised to take power, will legal abortions return to Poland, asks Anita Karwowska in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
WARSAW — At 3.30 pm on October 22, 2020, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal released a statement announcing that terminating pregnancy in the case of severe fetal deformities – allowed under a 1993 law – was now unconstitutional. With that one verdict, the tribunal effectively enforced a near-total ban on abortions in the country.
The ruling sparked immense public anger. Hundreds of thousands of Polish women joined protests, many braving a severe clampdown by the police. But the tribunal's action played into the hands of Jarosław Kaczyński's Law and Justice party (PiS), which had been afraid to directly ban abortion via the parliamentary route. Termination of pregnancy in the event of a severe fetal defect was the most common reason for legal abortion in Poland until Autumn 2020. Every year, approximately 1,100 of these procedures were performed in Polish hospitals.
After the law was changed, abortion remained permissible only in cases of rape and when the pregnancy presented a threat to the woman's health and life. However, doctors often felt pressured to interpret the law more broadly than the regulations decreed, lest they face criminal liability even for terminating a pregnancy that threatened a woman's life.
Certain hospitals also refused to perform abortions on "moral" grounds. This past May, a woman, known publicly only by her first name, Dorota, died after the hospital she was being treated denied her an emergency abortion. After her water broke early, Dorota’s condition worsened, and doctors did not inform her husband or parents about the extent to which her life was at risk. A few hours before her death, her unborn child died as well.
According to the religious website Wiara.pl, the Polish Catholic curia has ordered certain hospitals named after former pope John Paul II, including the one in which Dorota died, to sign declarations that they would not carry out abortions. Women are therefore afraid that in the event of complications, their doctor's priority will be to protect the fetus, even at the cost of their life.
Since October 2020, the worst-case scenario that women's rights activists warned against has come true: Polish women have died at the altar of the anti-abortion regime. “In recent years, we have buried seven women who lost their lives because of the inhumane anti-abortion law. Abortion is not an ideological issue. This is a matter of women's safety, our health and life,” Natalia Broniarczyk from the rights’ group Abortion Dream Team (Aborcyjnego Dream Teamu) told Gazeta Wyborcza.
70% of Poles favor legal abortion
Today, the majority of Polish society expects that Poland’s abortion law will be liberalized, with several parties supporting legal abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Support for the legalization of abortion is also far greater now compared to the period before the Constitutional Tribunal's judgment. In 2019, 53% of Poles surveyed believed that a woman should have the right to an abortion up to the 12th week. In November 2020, that number had reached 66%, and in an Ipsos survey for Oko.Press conducted at the end of 2022, 70% of participants held this view.
This change in public sentiment was visible across electorates, parties, and coalitions. In the Ipsos poll, 95% of Civic Coalition voters supported the right to abortion up to the 12th week, along with 97% of the Left, 84% of Poland 2050, 78% of the Polish People’s Party, and 52% of Konfederacja. Even among Law and Justice (PiS) party supporters, 34% backed this right.
Women's rights and abortion naturally became one of the opposition's main campaign slogans. The Civic Coalition and the left declared that they support a liberalization of the current regulations, leaving the decision-making power to women until the 12th week. The Third Way, a centrist coalition between the People’s Party and Poland 2050, which earned 14% of the vote in the elections, wants to return to the compromise of 1993, which allowed abortion in the case of risk to the life of the mother, or rape or severe fetal deformities. The coalition also wants to call for a popular referendum on the matter.
Now, they regret that they did not support the Left.
Women's rights organizations are hoping that the new government will quickly liberalize abortion regulations, and that the democratic side will not back out from the commitments it made to voters. The Civic Coalition has announced that it will submit the liberalization project in the first week of the new Sejm term. It also stated that it would support any changes towards a more liberal abortion law. This means that Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz and Szymon Hołownia of the Third Way can also count on the votes of the largest opposition club when the bill restoring the 1993 compromise is submitted to the Sejm.
“ I expect that politicians from the parties that will form the new government will take into account the views of their electorates on the legalization of abortion”, Broniarczyk, the women’s right’s activist, said. “I would like to remind you that 84% of Poland 2050 voters and 78% of People’s Party voters support legal abortion”.
Her statement came after Kosiniak-Kamysz, president of the Polish People’s Party, made a statement on Radio Zet distancing himself from the abortion issues. Broniarczyk said that following his statement, her organization received “a lot of messages from embittered girls who tell us that they voted for Third Way to help it get to the Sejm and thus remove PiS from power”, and that “now, they regret that they did not support the Left, which has a clear, libertarian position on abortion”.
At a protest against Poland's clampdown on abortion laws
Removing abortion from the criminal code
According to Broniarczyk, the most important next step is for the Sejm to decriminalize abortion as soon as possible, and to delete Article 152 of the Penal Code. This law sentences any doctor who terminates a pregnancy outside the permitted grounds to up to three years in prison. The same risk applies to a person who helps a woman have an abortion, for example, by providing her with abortion pills.
“We don't have time to return to the so-called abortion compromise, or to wait for a referendum on this matter”, Broniarczrk said. “Article 152, paragraph 2 of the Penal Code prohibits assisting in abortion, but what it actually does is tell women who need an abortion ‘you are on your own, deal with it’”.
There are things that can't wait.
Activists from the Abortion Dream Team organization have appealed to the heads of opposition parties to invite them to the Sejm. "We will explain to you why abortion is not an ideological issue [with] real stories and data”, they wrote in a statement published on social media.
Abortion Dream Team is not the only women’s rights organization working on the issue. The Federa Foundation for Women and Family Planning is also pressing forward on the matter and has issued a list of demands to the new parliamentary majority:
• Immediate decriminalization of abortion, "so that no doctor can baselessly claim that he does not want to go to prison for us"
• Introduction of a new law guaranteeing access to abortion financed by the National Health Fund, without the need to explain why it is needed
• Abolition of the “conscience clause”, in which doctors can object to performing abortions on moral grounds, and ensuring access to prescriptions of the morning-after pill.
Women's groups also expect that in case liberalization of the law is not possible in the near future due to President Andrzej Duda's veto, the new government will find a different way instead of the statutory path, such as through implementing appropriate regulations. Politicians of the future parliamentary majority have already declared that this is their plan. “There are things that can't wait. A woman who goes to a doctor with a high-risk pregnancy must receive help immediately”, Civic Coalition Member of Parliament Barbara Nowacka told Gazeta Wyborcza, “This will be [ensured] by regulations issued by the Ministry of Health regarding standards of perinatal care and procedures in the event of a high-risk pregnancy”.