Exploring the Fractured Landscape of Poland's Abortion Debate

Exploring the Fractured Landscape of Poland's Abortion Debate


November 10, 2020

A sea of over 500,000 individuals has converged upon the vibrant streets of Poland, resolute in their opposition to a recent court ruling that has restricted the right to abortions within the nation. The magnitude of this gathering has far surpassed the historical Solidarność marches, the very protests that ushered in the downfall of communism during the 1980s. Despite the relentless surge of Covid-19 cases, the Polish people remain unyielding in their determination to hold their government accountable, plunging the nation into a ceaseless state of social tumult. But how did this fervent upheaval come to pass?

What Happened?

The city of Warsaw became a flashpoint of civil disobedience as a constitutional ruling solidified the nationwide abortion ban, permitting the termination of pregnancy only in cases of 'fetal anomalies.' 150,000 protesters surrounded the residence of Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland's deputy prime minister and the leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Despite the restrictions placed on large gatherings, dozens of armed police thronged the streets of Poland, scrambling to extinguish the cascading mass of impassioned citizens. Their efforts, however, proved futile in the face of an onslaught of anti-abortion protesters alongside those endorsing the relaxation of the court ruling. Amidst the chaotic crowds, these demonstrations faced opposition from nationalist groups, hurling rocks and firecrackers in an attempt to subdue the protests.

Yet, undeterred, the demonstrations persist across the country, spreading like wildfire from Poznań to Kraków, much to the chagrin of the PiS party. Astonished by the intensity and vehement backlash, they find themselves unprepared, particularly considering their ill-timed decision to pass the abortion law amidst stringent national social distancing measures.

Even amidst the perils of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the fervour of the protests remains unwavering as men, women, and children take to the streets, firm in their quest to reclaim control over reproductive rights. Thus, the Polish political landscape finds itself at a critical juncture.


Polish Politics

According to the latest national opinion polls, a substantial decline in support for the ruling party has been observed, spurred by the explosive tensions between the public and the Polish government, known as the Sejm. Currently, the PiS party holds a meagre 26% of the vote, recording a sharp downswing of 10 percentage points in this month alone—an unprecedented low not seen since 2014.

In an attempt to address the burgeoning civil unrest across the nation, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urged protesters to channel their anger directly towards him. Rather than condemning the marches outright, he expressed willingness to engage in negotiations and discussions with protesters and opposition lawmakers, earnestly seeking a viable solution.

The same day, Polish President Andrzej Duda proposed amendments to the abortion law, endeavouring to moderate the ruling by permitting abortions in cases where fatal fetal defects are evident. This response has garnered support from the PiS party - an urgent move to placate the Polish people.

However, it is important to note that despite these proposed revisions, the wording of the bill is still highly ambiguous, casting doctors into a murky realm of legal uncertainty. Abortion will be accessible only to those with the "highest probability" of their child facing severe health concerns. This provision has sparked controversy, as doctors typically struggle to ascertain fetal defects during the early stages of pregnancy.

Photo: President Andrzej Duda

The Abortion compromise

Poland is no stranger to the infamous "abortion compromise" that has plagued its societal fabric. For decades, those seeking abortions have faced draconian measures, with the recent developments in the legal system only inflaming civil unrest. The current abortion law, passed by the Polish Sejm in 1992, replaced the more permissive 1956 legislation that permitted abortions for social reasons. However, the 1993 bill discarded this flexibility, restricting the procedure to three specific circumstances.

Firstly, when the pregnancy poses severe health or life risks. Secondly, in cases where fatal defects are evident during the pregnancy. And finally, up to 12 weeks if the pregnancy is the result of a crime.

This 1993 bill effectively abolished abortions based on social considerations, thereby curtailing the right to bodily autonomy for those who choose not to proceed with their pregnancy.

The current outrage echoes the movement of the 1990s, which garnered 1.7 million signatures in support of relaxing the abortion law. Ultimately, the Polish Sejm chose to ignore these fervent pleas, resulting in the infamous "abortion compromise" that has persisted for 26 years. This delusion of compromise has cast a long shadow over Polish politics, indirectly threatening that unnecessary social conflicts could potentially dismantle this so-called agreement.

In 1996, the matter was further complicated when the Sejm enacted another law, allowing doctors the right to exercise "conscientious objection to abortion." This granted them the freedom to refuse any abortion case that conflicted with personal or religious beliefs.

What Happens Now?

Consequently, pregnant women find themselves subject to increased pressures, eliciting desperate attempts to seek alternatives and resort to dangerous methods to work around these restrictions.

In Poland, approximately 100,000 abortions are performed each year, with only a mere 1% conducted legally. Abortion laws have driven these procedures underground, compelling individuals to resort to risky self-abortions through unauthorized homemade methods.

Some pro-choice initiatives have surfaced in opposition to pro-life sentiments throughout Poland, providing support to those seeking to terminate a pregnancy and offering secure means to travel abroad, or access safer methods of self-abortion.

If one is financially capable, it is not unheard of for doctors to perform an expensive abortion privately, even if they refuse to do so within the confines of their official work schedule. This has made abortion a matter of social class, normalized for those with the means to travel abroad or seek 'underground abortions'. This also leaves many to face the perils of dangerous homemade procedures alone.

Polish Voices

The constitutional tribunal’s ruling on the current bill has inadvertently ignited a surge in public activism, effectively dismantling the previously untouchable "abortion compromise." The Sejm now finds itself compelled to engage in broader discussions that may threaten the very essence of this delicate agreement.

For the first time since forming their government, the PiS party faces a formidable and potentially annihilating opposition from the masses—an opposition that many believe is long overdue.

Struggling to chart a course of action amidst this quagmire of public sentiment, the party now confronts the imminent backlash that awaits them, regardless of whether they appease their pro-life fundamentalist supporters or their pro-choice liberal counterparts.

Unintentionally, this rupture in the political landscape has forged a coalition among previously divided regions in Poland. Through this newfound amalgamation of the Polish people, there lies the potential to override the decisions of the political establishment, exemplified by the Prime Minister's unwillingness to condemn the massive demonstrations.

With each passing day, opposition to the PiS party expands as the public voice their disapproval of the state's controversial decisions.

Reem Hassan
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Writer since Jul, 2020 · 5 published articles

I'd rather end up wishing I hadn't than end up wishing I had - Tolstoy