What's Going on with the Abortion Law in Poland?

Op-ed

Upwards of 500,000 have rallied in Poland in opposition to a recent court ruling which effectively banned all abortions in the country. The tremendous numbers have surpassed the historical Solidarność marches- protests that led to the fall of communism in the 1980s. As Covid-19 cases continue to skyrocket, the Poles are relentless in their determination to ensure the Polish government is held to account for its actions, burdening the country with an ongoing state of incessant social tumult.

What Happened?

Mass civil disobedience struck the city of Warsaw after a constitutional ruling cemented the nation-wide ban of abortions, allowing no cases but ‘fetal anomalies’ to terminate a pregnancy. 150,000 protesters united in the capital’s city center, coming from four directions, their destination at the house of Poland’s deputy prime minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński.

Despite the restriction on group gatherings exceeding 5 people, dozens of armed police were dispatched to take over the streets of Poland, in pursuit of controlling the masses of enraged civilians; their efforts were seemingly futile when faced with the threat of anti-abortion protesters alongside those endorsin the relaxation of the court ruling. Many protesters have faced abuse from anti-abortion, nationalist groups who were throwing rocks and firecrackers into the hectic crowds.

At present, the demonstrations rage on, duplicating across the country in other major cities from Poznań to Kraków, to the absolute dismay of the PiS party, who had not anticipated such vigorous and aggrieved backlash, especially considering their decision to pass the abortion law during the strict national coronavirus social distancing measure.

Despite Covid-19 reservations, the intensity of protests has not faltered as men, women, and children continue to defy governmental authority to reclaim control of reproductive rights. Protests have been held in front of churches and other related institutions, with many organizing online methods to formally abandon the Catholic Church, which is believed to have played an active role in this controversial legal procedure.

Polish Politics

According to the latest national opinion polls, a devastating drop in support for the governing party has been observed after controversial tensions between the public and the Polish government (Sejm). Currently, only holding around 26% of the vote, the PiS party has plummeted 10 points over the course of this month- the lowest level since 2014.

Seeking to mitigate political damage in the country, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki implored protesters to ‘direct anger at him’ personally, not condemning the marches and accepting negotiations and talks with protesters and opposition law-makers to find a solution. The same day that Morawiecki spoke out, Polish President Andrzej Duda filed amendments to the abortion law, softening the ruling by allowing access to abortions for cases where there is evidence of fatal fetal defects. The PiS party has supported this move and identified it as a solution that may appease the entirety of the country, unaware that the people would not be docile.

Aside from being highly ambiguous and having the capacity to plunge doctors into legal abyss; due to the vaguely worded bill, abortions will only available to those with the ‘highest probability’ of lethal damage that will eventually result in the death of the child. This was seen as controversial as doctors generally cannot 100% recognize fetal defects at the early stages of pregnancy.

Photo: President Andrzej Duda

The Infamous Predecessors

Poland is well known for its infamous ‘abortion compromise’. Those who have sought an abortion in Poland have been subject to the harshest of treatment for decades, with the latest developments in the legal system only amplifying this oppression. The current abortion law was passed by the Polish Sejm in 1992, replacing the legal act of 1956 that made abortions legal for social reasons. The 1993 bill abolished this flexibility, allowing abortions only on 3 occasions.

1. If the pregnancy poses severe health or life risks.

2. If there should be fatal defects evident during the pregnancy

3. Up to 12 weeks if the pregnancy is the result of a crime

The 1993 bill effectively terminated abortions based on social reasons, ensuring the right to body autonomy was compressed for those who simply did not want to endure pregnancy and give birth. The law, passed under a right-wing government, could be claimed to have been influenced by the control of the Catholic Church, which to this day remains as adamant as before about controlling the rate of abortions.

The current outrage is similar to the 1990s movement that triggered 1.7 million signatures supporting the relaxation of the abortion law, eventually ignored by the Polish Sejm. As a result, the 1993 law was dubbed the ‘abortion compromise’ and has since been in place for 26 years. The delusion of a compromise has played a large role in Polish politics; the public has been indirectly threatened that through creating unnecessary social conflict, they risked the destruction of this so-called compromise.

The matter was exacerbated in 1996 when the Sejm passed another law under the social democrat government of Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz: the new law allowed doctors the right to ‘conscientious objection to abortion’, providing the freedom to refuse any case if it conflicted with their personal or religious beliefs.

What Happens Now?

Along with increased difficulty and pressure endured by pregnant women, the laws led to unbearable suffering and efforts to seek alternatives, as well as dangerous, methods to counteract their restriction. In Poland, roughly 100,000 abortions are performed annually with only 1% of them carried out legally. The repressive laws have ensured that abortions are conducted in what is known as the ‘abortion underground, or risky self-abortions through unauthorized home-made methods.

There are pro-choice schemes in place guaranteeing the protection of reproductive rights where groups assist those wishing to terminate their pregnancy by offering secure means to travel abroad or access non-hazardous means to self-abort.

Provided they can afford it, it is not paradoxical to encounter a doctor willing to perform an abortion; it has been noted that doctors who deny carrying out the abortion during their work schedule are often more than happy to privately conduct one for a high fee. Consequently, abortion has become a matter of class, normalized for those capable of traveling abroad or getting an ‘underground abortion’ and concealed to those who risk the obscurities of dangerous home-made abortions

The Fall of the Wall

The constitutional tribunal’s ruling on the current bill has unintentionally instigated a surge in public activism levels after effectively abolishing the previously untouchable ‘abortion compromise’. Therefore, the Sejm is obligated to consider debate and discussion without threatening that it may disrupt the compromise.

For the first time since forming their government, the PiS party is facing serious and potentially annihilating mass opposition for their actions which the public has deemed long overdue. The PiS party is struggling to deal with drawing up a plan on the direction that will be taken regarding the situation they have created, facing the inevitable indignation if they choose to ignore the requests of pro-life fundamentalist supporters and pro-choice liberals.

Unintentionally, the tear in the political structure has brought about the unity of large regions in Poland, which until recently have experienced great divides and discord. With this newfound amalgamation of the Polish people, there is potential to override the decisions of the political system, exemplified by the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to condemn the large-scale demonstrations.

Opposition to the PiS party expands by the day as the public voice their opinions against the actions of the state. From the events occurring in Poland, it is fascinating to compare this to the ideas of late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr: it seems the government is guilty of forgetting that those weighed down under the oppression of governments will not remain as they are, for the ‘yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself’.

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Reem Hassan

If one is to be anything, then why not be great? If not that, then at least achieve something that embodies a distinct amount of greatness.


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