“PiS Off!”: The Relentless Threat to Women’s Reproductive Rights in Poland
Since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Poland’s abortion laws have become increasingly strict, currently only allowing legal abortions in one of three circumstances:
When the woman’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy,
When the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (which must be certified by a prosecutor),
When there is a high probability of severe and irreversible fetal impairment.
However, Poland’s government and Catholic citizens aim to prevent abortion in even these circumstances, infringing on women’s reproductive rights. In the past few decades, Poland has seen instances of women and girls being refused their legal right to abortion by doctors and prosecutors. This resulted in interference from the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of clear violations of basic human rights. While the government paid monetary compensation to the women in question, they refused to fix the problem.
The Roman Catholic Church in Poland heavily championed an “abortion compromise”, introduced in 1993, with the aim of ending illegal terminations and raising the birth rate — yet neither goal was met. Instead, there are an estimated 10,000-150,000 illegal abortions performed in Poland each year, in addition to the several thousand women who seek abortions in neighboring countries such as Germany. Since Poland's 2015 general election, the majority ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party has attacked democratic institutions and women’s rights, specifically with the end goal of criminalising abortion in all circumstances. However, these measures would simply serve to increase the amount of illegal and unsafe procedures.
While the Conservative right-wing government itself has been hesitant to put forth legislation to ban all abortions, private Catholic groups with considerable public support have instead been drafting laws and collecting signatures to appear before lawmakers. In June 2011, Polish Catholic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were able to collect over 500,000 signatures in support of a bill that would ban abortions completely. This was ultimately rejected by lawmakers due to indecision within the government.
The recent re-election of Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, however, poses significant consequences for the safety of the country’s women and their control over their own bodies. The PiS Party which backed Duda’s bid in both elections has strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church, the dominant religious authority in Poland. These ties have only strengthened since the beginning of Duda’s presidency to restrict women’s reproductive rights, criminalise the teaching of sexual education, and enforce its inherently homophobic agenda nationwide.
Over Duda’s first presidential term, two new bills were introduced— “Stop Abortion” and “Stop Pedophilia” — which are still points of contestation. The organisation Stop Abortion (responsible for both bills) advocated for the criminalisation of abortion, adding that any women or doctors associated with the procedure should face up to five years in prison. The proposed bill also called for imprisonment if there was insufficient evidence to prove that a miscarriage had not been induced. Needless to say, this law would prove dangerous to women's physical and mental health, as well as infringing on their basic human rights to have control over their own bodies.
PiS party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a prominent supporter of the amendment, stated that amending the laws would give stillborn babies the opportunity to be “baptised, buried, and named” so as to conform to Catholic ideology. However, supporters of the bill, like Kaczynski, have yet to comment on the psychological and physical impacts on mothers’ health caused by carrying out these difficult pregnancies.
In addition, the government under PiS has rebranded the morning-after pill as an “early abortion pill” and mandated a required prescription for its purchase. Textbooks written in 2018 also described contraceptives as “dangerous” to a person’s health, demonstrating that in a neo-theocratic government such as PiS’s Polish women’s reproductive rights will remain under attack indefinitely.
The Stop Abortion and Stop Pedophilia bills were met with one of the greatest demonstrations of public unity in modern-day Poland: the “Czarny Protest”, or Black Protest. On “Black Monday”, 3 October 2016, thousands of Polish women, wearing all black, went on strike to march in cities and towns across the country in protest. These protests were held internationally as well and then repeated in 2018 when another, less severe, bill sought to amend current abortion laws which grant access to abortion in cases of severe fetal abnormality.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in Poland, however, has served as the perfect diversion for PiS and its Catholic allies. Poland’s lockdowns and curfews extended the powers of a government already guilty of posing an attack on democracy. The 2018 bill, previously stalled due to the protests, was able to resurface for review, incidentally only a month before the presidential election.
Due to the overwhelming concern for health and safety at the moment, the public eye was turned momentarily away from the topic of abortion. This provided an ideal opportunity for PiS to push the Stop Abortion and Stop Pedophilia bills through Parliament, raising criticism that PiS was deliberately using the pandemic as a distraction for legalising both bills. Those defending the Stop Abortion bill, such as Kaja Godek (spokeswoman for the Stop Abortion group), claim, however, that their aim was not to blindside the public, but that they “now better understand the need to protect human life”.
Outraged by this blatant disrespect for democracy and attack on women’s reproductive rights, particularly during a worldwide crisis, Polish women again took to the streets despite the strict lockdown rules. To respect social distancing, they instead protested in their cars and on bicycles, effectively clogging central Warsaw’s streets while honking their horns, displaying posters, and waving flags. This mass response at the height of the pandemic triggered a delay in the bill’s ruling due to a need for further discussion. However, this means the issue could still resurface.
As the future remains uncertain in the age of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to remain vigilant against such attacks on democracy and threats to women’s reproductive rights. With Duda’s re-election and the Conservative government’s use of the pandemic to enforce draconian measures to suppress its citizens’ rights, there is still a likely chance this law, or some variation of it will pass.