Will Poland’s New Government Legalize Abortion?

After Poland’s parliamentary election in October, many voters were hopeful that the new government would finally scrap the country’s strict abortion law. The law, which had been in place for three decades, was tightened further in 2020, leading to a near-total ban on abortion.

The election ended the eight-year rule of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), with the opposition winning enough seats to form a coalition government. In the lead-up to the vote, two of the three groups that made up the opposition—the centrist Civic Coalition and the Left—pledged to legalize abortion up to or through 12 weeks of pregnancy; the former promised to do so within the first 100 days in office.

However, the third group in the coalition—the more conservative Third Way—opposes this policy and wants to hold a referendum instead to decide whether to legalize the procedure. The government is now facing a deadlock. Since the election, the ideologically heterogenous coalition has only agreed in its coalition pact to reverse the 2020 legislative amendment that resulted in a near-total abortion ban.

Yet even the slightest change to that law may be a challenge, because PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda has the power to veto any legislative amendments and could derail all attempts at a legal overhaul. Poland’s constitutional court, which has been stacked with PiS-appointed judges, could also reject amendments to the law. As the weeks drag on with no substantial change in sight, it seems that the fight for abortion rights in Poland is far from over.

The Polish activists and rights groups that spearheaded pro-choice demonstrations under PiS’s rule have started to protest the new government’s failure to act. On Jan. 7, Poles held small demonstrations in five cities. Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, a women’s rights foundation, posted on Facebook that protesters gathered to “remind politicians that we’ve got our eyes on them, that we haven’t forgotten that they had promised us the change of the abortion law.”

“It’s back to the same old chat. They’re telling us we need to wait for women’s rights,” said Dorota Koszal, an IT specialist, who participated in a modest gathering in the city of Poznan in western Poland. Around 50 people, some holding homemade signs, had braved the cold to urge the new government to act on abortion rights.

Koszal made the case that it’s time for political parties to catch up with their electorate. Women were pivotal in toppling the conservative government—a record 74 percent of eligible women, compared with 72 percent of men, voted in last year’s election. Experts have remarked that strict abortion policies motivated many women to vote for the opposition. And exit polls showed that after the economy, abortion and women’s rights were the second-most important issues—on par with national security—for Polish voters. By contrast, just 61.5 percent of women voted in the 2019 parliamentary election, when the national health service, social support programs, and education were the three most important factors to voters, according to a survey by research company Kantar.

The Polish electorate has come a long way on the issue of safe and legal abortion access. In 2016, only 29 percent of Poles supported the liberalization of the abortion law, and 54 percent opposed any legal changes to it, a Millward Brown poll found. But in December 2023, nearly 60 percent of Poles supported legalizing abortion, and 38 percent supported legalization up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, according to a poll conducted by market research firm Ipsos.

Jan. 7 marked 31 years since Poland banned abortion with three exceptions: rape or incest, fetal abnormalities, or endangerment to the pregnant person’s life or health. Before the ban was introduced, Poland had one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. The procedure had been widely accessible since 1956, and the country was a destination for safe abortions for people from other European states with stricter laws.

But after the fall of communism in the late 1980s, the Catholic Church, which was becoming increasingly powerful in Poland, pushed to ban abortion. The church’s outsized role in influencing law and policies led to the government passing abortion restrictions in 1993, despite protests and lack of popular support for curtailing abortion rights.

Since then, Poles have struggled to access abortion, even in situations where it’s legal. In some parts of the country, medical professionals and even entire hospitals have invoked the “conscience clause,” refusing to perform the procedure on the grounds that it goes against their beliefs. Over the years, Poles who had faced hurdles accessing abortions at state facilities have sued Poland before the European Court of Human Rights. In a number of cases, the court found that Poland violated the rights of women who couldn’t access legal abortions.

In 2020, Poland’s constitutional court—which is widely considered to be controlled by PiS, a close ally of the Catholic Church—tightened the law further. Before then, most legal abortions were conducted on grounds of fetal abnormalities. The tribunal ruled these abortions unconstitutional, making it nearly impossible to access legal abortions and triggering mass protests across the country, which lasted for weeks despite COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Although the protests didn’t lead to legal change, they were a watershed moment that spurred the liberalization of views on abortion in Polish society.

Most Poles seeking safe abortions order abortion pills online or travel abroad. In December, the Abortion Dream Team, a Poland-based activist group, said it had helped 125,000 women in Poland access abortions over the previous three years, with 3,000 traveling abroad. Even so, since the court’s decision, at least six women have died after doctors refused to terminate their pregnancies despite complications endangering their health, including from carrying a dead fetus.

Although Polish law doesn’t criminalize the people terminating their pregnancies, aiding an abortion became a crime when the country’s criminal code was amended in 1997. It wasn’t until after 2020 that the authorities really started to enforce this. Anyone who performs an abortion illegally or helps others obtain the procedure can face up to three years in prison. Furthermore, in the past three years, authorities have increasingly launched investigations into doctors and even people seeking medical assistance for miscarriages or after legal medical abortions, on legal grounds that Human Rights Watch has called “questionable.”

In March 2023, Justyna Wydrzynska, a Polish activist who co-founded the Abortion Dream Team, became the first person in Europe to be found guilty of aiding an abortion for providing abortion pills to a pregnant woman. She was sentenced to eight months of community service and has since appealed the court’s decision.

There is still some hope that the ruling coalition can overhaul these policies, but change is likely to be slow. The word “abortion” did not make it into the ruling coalition’s agreement, which the all-male leadership signed in November. Instead, the agreement read: “We will revoke the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal from 2020. Women have the right to decide for themselves.” This would mean a return to the 1993 law that largely banned the procedure aside from its three exemption clauses.

Even scaling back from the 2020 court ruling to the 1993 law “means that despite the will of the electorate, Poland won’t ever be secular and that women will keep dying,” said Marta Lempart, the co-founder of the Women’s Strike, the group behind the mass abortion rights protests in recent years.

The Third Way, for its part, still hopes to hold a referendum on the topic, though the Civic Coalition and the Left oppose this—as do women’s rights groups. Although the majority of Poles now support abortion access, Lempart, for instance, worries that anti-choice organizations and fundamentalist Christian groups would spend millions of dollars to fund an “anti-women campaign” to ensure that enough voters decide to reject legalization in a referendum.

“Poland will be a testing ground for the global fundamentalist organizations’ network that will get into this fight to establish [another] ban on abortion in Poland via referendum,” Lempart said.

The Civic Coalition and the Left, meanwhile, are looking to parliament for a way forward. On Jan. 25, the Civic Coalition, led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, proposed a bill that would guarantee access to abortion through 12 weeks of pregnancy, with certain exceptions after that period. The bill also seeks to curtail the use of the so-called conscience clause by medical professionals and facilities. Yet without backing from the Third Way, the bill is unlikely to go through.

The Left proposed two abortion bills on the first day of the new parliament in November. The first would amend Poland’s penal code and decriminalize helping others obtain an abortion; the second, which is similar to the Civic Coalition’s bill, would also guarantee abortion access up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and curb the use of the conscience clause.

The Left’s Katarzyna Kotula, Poland’s newly appointed equality minister, admitted that the second bill is unlikely to be approved due to opposition from the Third Way. She remains optimistic about the first bill but knows that it won’t be easy. “We will be looking for a majority, but having in the back of our minds that Andrzej Duda is still living in the presidential palace,” she said.

Duda will stay in office—and retain his veto power—for another year and a half. Poles will vote in presidential elections in 2025. Whoever wins that race will hold the key to approving or blocking changes to the abortion law.

To speed up changes on the ground amid these challenges, the ruling coalition has been exploring “softer measures,” Kotula said. These include providing guidelines for hospitals to ensure the safety of doctors and patients with high-risk pregnancies, since medical professionals have reported that they are scared to perform even legal abortions, fearing prosecution; in 2022, public hospitals did not conduct any abortions in nine of the country’s 16 regions, official data shows. That year, the number of officially terminated pregnancies totaled 161—almost seven times less than in 2020. In January, the government also proposed legal amendments to make the morning-after pill available over the counter again after the PiS government made it available by prescription only in 2017.

Kotula added that the coalition needs to find middle ground “until there’s a change in the presidential chair.” “When it comes to changing the law, decriminalization is the most realistic,” she said. “This should be our new compromise. I don’t like that word, but it would be something we could maybe agree on.”

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