A controversial abortion bill was rejected by the Polish parliament on Thursday, 6 October after public protests throughout the preceding week. The law was rejected by a large margin of 352 to 58, with 18 abstaining votes by members of the lower house of parliament, called the Sejm. The bill would have limited abortion to only lifesaving instances. This law would have prevented women, including those who had suffered rape or incest, from obtaining abortions. Women who miscarried could have been investigated as the bill would have made the “death of a ‘conceived child’ punishable with a prison sentence.” The Catholic Church supported the bill originally, but the bishops recanted their support due to the suggestion that women who opted for abortion and doctors who performed abortions should be punished, including imprisonment for up to five years. The bill originated with Ordo Iuris, a conservative think tank and “an anti-abortion citizens’ initiative” that gathered around 450,000 signatures.
In Poland, abortion is banned for most women after the 12th week of pregnancy, and the only exemptions from this include the “severe and irreversible damage to the foetus, a serious threat to the mother’s health, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.” Medical professionals already have access to the ‘conscience clause,’ which can be used to opt out of performing an abortion in addition to the large number of medical restrictions. Poland, as a Catholic state, maintains one of the most severe stances on abortion in Europe. Countries with more strict laws include Malta, the Vatican, the Republic of Ireland, Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Northern Ireland. All of these states are officially Catholic.
A sign from the protests that reads ‘Your Parliament, Our Bodies’
Due to the bill’s clause that would have allowed for the punishment of medical professionals, there was concern that medical personnel would have become afraid to conduct “invasive prenatal tests and lifesaving operations.” Additionally, it is widely felt that the bill would not have prevented abortions, but caused them to take place illegally. During illegal terminations, the danger to the woman increases dramatically. If this law had passed, a larger proportion of the estimated 21 million unsafe abortions that typically take place in the developing world each year would take place in European, developed countries such as Poland. Currently, illegal abortions far outnumber legal ones in Poland, with conservative estimates ranging widely from 10,000 to 150,000 in comparison to around 1,000-2,000 legal terminations.
The bill was protested en masse on 3 October during the Black Protest, which saw women marching in a peaceful protest wearing black clothing. The march was closely followed by social media with the hashtag #CzarnyProtest trending on Twitter and Facebook. Radio Poland estimated that millions of individuals participated in the protest across the nation and in Warsaw alone, thousands of peaceful activists participated in the march on what has been deemed Black Monday. Feminist groups from within Poland and across the globe supported women’s rights from Gdansk, Lodz, Wroclaw, and Krakow to Chicago and European cities such as Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Belfast, London and Paris.
Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s Foreign Minister was a prominent opponent of the protests on Black Monday. She said “We expect serious debate on questions of life, death and birth. We do not expect happenings, dressing in costumes and creating artificial problems” and proceeded to call the protests “marginal” and claim that they were “making a mockery of important issues.” In stark contrast, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin sought to comfort the protesters by saying it was unlikely a complete ban on abortion would be voted through the parliament, especially one that included rape victims or put the woman’s life or health at risk. The majority of Polish citizens agree with this view. An opinion poll conducted by Ipsos a mere eleven percent of respondents preferred more strict abortion laws. Additionally, nearly half of all respondents answered that the current legislation should be unaffected, however, over one third of participants answered that legal terminations should be more accessible.
After the parliament voted against the bill, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, stated that he supported “the protection of life,” and that he believed the legislation would not have aided in that endeavour. Beta Szdlo, Poland’s Prime Minister, echoed Kaczynski and additionally declared “a new program to support families who decide to give birth to, and raise, children who have disabilities from difficult pregnancies.” She also announced an educational campaign to promote pro-life values in lieu of the bill after it did not pass. The government said that protests against the bill had given ministers “food for thought” on Poland’s hard stance against abortion. Thus, the protests on 3 October 2016 were a victory for women’s rights as they created a change in government policy and persuaded the parliament to reject the bill, which would have damaged women’s health and reproductive rights.
The protesters are not the only ones asking the Polish government for answers justifying the strict abortion laws. The European Court of Human Rights has joined in on the debate and The European Parliament debated whether its members should criticize the restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland and the proposed law. It chose to request that the “Polish government to abide by its international and European obligations and end this attack on women’s rights,” bringing further attention to the issue. The EU has condemned Poland “for taking control of state media appointments and for reforms to Poland’s constitutional court” after Law and Justice became the ruling party in 2015.
You can learn more information about the protest on OpenDemocracy.net and the Czarny Protest Facebook Page.