Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe to date. Abortion has never been legal in Poland but the state has allowed it in select few cases. On 22nd October 2020, the Polish government amended the abortion law for the worst. The recent court ruling has banned almost all abortions except those in cases of rape or incest.

The Polish court is dominated by the ruling party – The Law and Justice party (PiS). PiS has previously expressed strong ideas about traditional families and contempt towards the LGBTQ+ community, and this ruling is a result of a request by the MPs to review the existing abortion laws. The court ruling came in line with Poland’s Roman Catholic episcopate and the PiS. It has placed Poland outside the settled European consensus on the right of women to control their own bodies.

The Polish government has long ignored the obligations of the European Union membership, and the European Commission expressed concerns over breaches of rule of law. Whilst, the European Parliament has supported this regulation, it has been blocked by governments in the council. It is difficult to ascertain what course of action the European Commission would pursue but it is unlikely that the Polish government will be able to avoid consequences this time.

Abortions carried out when the fetus is malformed, which accounted for 98% of legal terminations in 2019 have now been outlawed. Less than 2000 legal terminations are carried out each year in Poland. According to women’s groups’ estimates, up-to 200,000 abortions are either performed illegally or abroad. Health Ministry figures have shown that 1,110 legal abortions were held in Poland in 2019. 

The new abortion law prohibits abortions due to any fatal abnormalities or incurable illnesses of the child. This means that women will be forced to carry out pregnancies that they know are not viable. It is impossible to imagine how traumatic and emotionally damaging this would be for the woman giving birth to such a child. It also adds risk to the mother’s health. Women that retain a dead embryo or fetus can experience severe blood loss or develop an infection of the womb. 

Malgorzata Szulecka, a lawyer for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, told the BBC: “This is a totally unjustified decision that will lead to inhuman treatment of women.” Although the ruling affects all women, those who belong to marginalized groups will be disproportionately affected, as they may not even be able to travel outside of the country to get an abortion.

International human rights groups have condemned the ruling. Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch said they would send independent monitors to the court. Protests have erupted across Poland and elsewhere in Europe in reaction to the ruling, which are still continuing. Protestors also disrupted church services to express anger over the Catholic church’s role in public life. Much of the anger, however, is directed towards the PiS. Protestors have been attacked by tear gas, and the police has arrested a number of protestors.

Marta Kotwas, a researcher at UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies specializing in rightwing populism in Poland, said: “There is so much anger because people can see how the abortion issue is being exploited as a political issue, how women are being used as a bargaining chip by political actors.”

The situation was further exacerbated by reports that doctors are canceling scheduled terminations of fetuses with severe defects to avoid breaking the law. 

The PiS has said that they would propose a new law to better support women and their children”, which could be an opportunity to soften the blow of the court decision, though no such action has been taken as of yet.

The abortion ban in Poland displays an assault on women’s rights and creates a question of women’s autonomy in the so called developed world. Women are being exploited and losing their bodily autonomy in the face of political conflict. According to some, the ban on abortions is to appease conservative factions of the country. The criminalization or restriction on abortions will not stop abortions, it will only make them less safe. Decisions around pregnancy and abortion impact human rights and the criminalization of abortion adds to the stigma. Poland’s ban on abortion is yet another reminder of how easily women’s rights can be exploited in any part of the world sometimes under the guise of cultural values or religion.

Mass demonstrations have continued in Poland and we have yet to see an outcome favorable to women. Meanwhile, what we can do is raise awareness about the unjust ban in an attempt to protect women’s rights and safety.

Here is what you can do to help:

  • Ayesha Mirza

    Ayesha is studying Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is passionate about amplifying the voices of the marginalized and/or oppressed and initiating unconventional but important conversations.