Poland has a near-total abortion ban. Lawmakers have taken 1st steps to possibly lifting it

Polish lawmakers voted Friday to move forward with several bills aimed at reforming the Catholic country’s abortion laws, including two that would lift the near-total ban on abortion that currently exists in the EU country.

Members of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, voted to work on four separate bills. Two of them propose legalizing abortion through the 12th week of pregnancy, in line with European norms. A third would de-penalize the procedure.

The fourth bill, proposed by the Christian Democratic Third Way party, would reinstate the right to abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities, reverting to what the situation was before a 2020 constitutional court ruling banned such procedures.

Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with abortions only allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk.

Reproductive rights advocates say that even in such cases, doctors and hospitals turn away women, fearing legal consequences for themselves or citing their moral objections.

According to Health Ministry statistics, 161 abortions were performed in hospitals in 2022 in the country of 37 million people.

The four bills will now be debated by the special parliamentary commission. It is not clear how long the work may take, but some lawmakers have suggested it could be until a new president is elected next year.

It is widely expected that current President Andrzej Duda, a conservative ally of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, would veto any changes to abortion legislation. Last month, he vetoed a bill making the morning-after pill — which is not an abortion pill but emergency contraception — available over-the-counter to women and girls 15 and older. Duda’s second and final term runs until the summer of 2025.

A source of tension in government

The Sejm created a 27-member commission to work on the four bills. They voted for it to be led by Dorota Łoboda, a lawmaker who was formerly an activist with a women’s rights group.

The party of centrist Prime Minister Donald Tusk is seeking to change the law to allow women to terminate pregnancies up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Tusk won office last year after an election in which young people and women turned out in large numbers amid a record high turnout of nearly 75 per cent. Political observers say voters were mobilized after the abortion law was restricted under the previous right-wing government.

Since winning election in October, Tusk’s broad coalition encompassing the moderate left and centre-right has reinstated public funding for in-vitro fertilization and voted to change rules on access to emergency contraception.

Tusk said Poland still probably has a long way to go to liberalize the law but welcomed Friday’s votes as a move in the right direction. He said he hoped the country would ultimately end up with a law that gives women the feeling that they are not “an object of attack, contempt or disregard.”

Tusk is supported on the issue by Lewica (the Left), an alliance of left-leaning parties that is part of his governing coalition. However, the third coalition partner, the more conservative Third Way, favours restrictions on abortion rights, and the issue has been a source of tension within the government.

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Abortion rights advocates said the decision to continue work on the bills, and not reject them outright, was a step in the right direction, though they also said they didn’t expect the law to change soon. 

Kinga Jelińska, an activist who helps provide abortions with the group Women Help Women, described being “moderately satisfied.”

The Women’s Strike, the Polish organization that led massive street protests as abortion rights were restricted, noted that it was the first time since 1996 that bills liberalizing legal access to abortion in Poland were not dropped in a primary vote.

Anti-abortion demonstrations planned

Abortion opponents have also been mobilizing in the country, which has long considered the Catholic faith to be a bedrock of national identity but which is also in the process of rapid secularization. 

In a statement, the Catholic church called on the faithful to make Sunday a day of prayer “in defence of conceived life.” An anti-abortion demonstration titled the March of Life is also being planned in downtown Warsaw that day.

The reality is that many Polish women already get abortions, often with the help of medication mailed from abroad. Reproductive rights advocates estimate that women in Poland have about 120,000 abortions independently.

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