Abortion in Poland
In 2016, with proposed legislation to completely outlaw abortion, 30,000 women went on strike and marched in cities across the country to protest the legislation, leading high-ranking politicians to distance themselves from the proposed law. Just three days after the strike, lawmakers voted against the new law.
Poland is one of the few countries in the world to outlaw abortion after decades of liberal legislation (during Communist rule). Polish women often seek abortion in neighboring countries due to the strict restraints in their own country.
Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, along with a group of other traditionally Catholic countries of the region (Malta, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Vatican, Monaco and Andorra).
In Poland, abortion is banned except in the following three circumstances.
- When the woman's life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy,
- When the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or
- When the fetus is seriously malformed
Unlike in other countries where abortion is banned, women in Poland are not subject to a penalty for illegal termination of pregnancy. Consent of a physician is required for circumstances (1) and (3) above, while abortions in view of circumstance (2) above must be certified by prosecutor. Parental consent is always required if the woman seeking abortion is a minor.
In addition, persuading a woman to carry out illegal termination of her pregnancy is a criminal act.
Until 1932, abortion was banned in Poland without exceptions. In that year, the new Penal Code legalised abortion only when there were medical reasons and, for the first time in Europe, when the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act. Except during the German occupation during the Second World War, this law was in effect from 1932 to 1956. In Nazi Germany, which included territories of Poland 1939-1945, the penalties for abortion were increased, especially for providing an abortion to an "Aryan" woman. Abortion was permitted if the foetus was deformed or disabled. In 1956 the Sejm legalised abortion in cases where the woman was experiencing "difficult living conditions". The interpretation of the change in the law varied from a restrictive interpretation, in the late 1950s, to one in where abortion was allowed on request, in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not uncommon that women from countries where abortions were restricted, such as Sweden, travelled to Poland to carry out abortions which were accessible and affordable there.
The procedural requirements needed for obtaining a legal abortion were changed several times over the years, in 1956, 1959, 1969, 1981 and 1990. The most important change was that of 1990, after the end of Communist rule, when Ordinance of 30 April 1990 made access to abortion more difficult. A major change came in 1993, when the law was further tightened, removing entirely the "difficult living conditions" as a ground for abortions. As such, abortions could be legally obtained only in cases of serious threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman, as attested by two physicians, cases of rape or incest confirmed by a prosecutor, and cases in which prenatal tests, confirmed by two physicians, demonstrated that the foetus was seriously and irreversibly damaged. This law remains in place today.
Poland is a country strongly influenced by Roman Catholicism, and religion often influences politics and social views. Abortion is a controversial topic in Polish politics. The question of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment was one of the reasons for the split in the Law and Justice (PiS) party and the creation of Prawica Rzeczypospolitej, led by Marek Jurek.
Law and Justice, abbreviated to PiS, is a national-conservative, and Christian democratic political party in Poland. With 237 seats in the Sejm and 66 in the Senate, it is currently the largest party in the Polish parliament.
In June 2011, Polish pro-life NGOs collected over 500,000 signatures for a proposed bill to ban abortion in Poland altogether. The bill, while rejected by a majority of the MPs, got enough support to be sent to a Sejm committee in order to be subject to further amendments. The move was criticised by two right-wing opposition parties, Law and Justice and Poland Comes First, which expressed their support for the bill. The left-wing Democratic Left Alliance pursues a pro-choice policy and was against the bill. The ruling Civic Platform, while considering itself in favour of the current legislation on abortion in Poland, was divided on the matter; more than 60 of the party's MPs voted in favour of the bill.
Proposed abortion ban
In April 2016, Polish organizations proposed amended legislation to ban abortion in all cases except to save the woman's life. The bill included penalties to abortion providers with up to five years of imprisonment. The bill passed and was debated in Sejm, beginning 22 September 2016. The Sejm voted with majority in favour of continuing work on the bill. A competing bill, proposing liberalisation of abortion laws and also supported by a civil initiative that succeeded in gathering the required number of signatures, was rejected outright in the same session of Sejm. If the law had passed, Poland's abortion restrictions would have mirrored those of Malta and the Vatican, the two countries in Europe with the harshest restrictions on abortion.
On 22 September 2016, on the day when the bill to ban abortion was debated in Sejm, the Razem party organized a demonstration called "Czarny Protest" ("Black Protest"), initiated by party member Małgorzata Adamczyk. This was part of a larger campaign, in which people published selfies in black clothing in social media, tagged #czarnyprotest (#blackprotest). In the subsequent days, similar protests were being organized in other Polish cities, such as Wrocław, Łódź and Kraków. Thousands of people took part in the protests in various parts of Poland. On 1 October 2016, a large protest also took place near the Sejm building, organized by Barbara Nowacka of Inicjatywa Polska, who had collected signatures under a citizens' bill to liberalize the Polish abortion law.
On 3 October 2016, thousands of Polish women went on strike to oppose the proposed legislation for a total ban on abortion, called "Czarny Poniedziałek" ("Black Monday"), originally proposed in a Facebook post by Polish actress Krystyna Janda. The women modeled their strike on the successful strike for women's rights in Iceland in 1975, refusing to attend school, work, or participate in domestic chores. The pro abortion protesters marched in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź, Wrocław, and Kraków, and demonstrators across Europe marched in solidarity. Approximately 98,000 protestors showed up to decry the new bill. Supporters of the new legislation held counterprotests and Catholic Masses to express alignment with the abortion ban.
By 5 October 2016, politicians were distancing themselves from the proposed legislation. On 6 October, lawmakers voted the bill down with plans to present a counterproposal from the government.
In 2016, Foreign Policy magazine included Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk of the Razem party and Barbara Nowacka of Inicjatywa Polska, on its annual list of the 100 most influential global thinkers for their role in organizing protests against a total ban on abortion in Poland. In 2018, Forbes magazine included Marcelina Zawisza on its annual European Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the "Law & Policy" category for her role as a co-founder of Razem and one of the organizers of "black protest".
In the latest poll on abortion by the CBOS Public Opinion Research Center, 65% of Poles viewed abortion as immoral and unacceptable and only 27% viewed it as acceptable, a drop of 4% compared to an older poll from 2009. In a CBOS poll from February 2014, more than half of the participants (55%) opposed the right to abortion on request. Furthermore, 71% of the participants believed abortion on request was inappropriate. At the same time, over one-third (37%) thought that abortion should be permitted.
Surveys indicate a conservative turn in the 1990s. Although the supporters of legal abortion prevailed, the difference continuously narrowed. In 2006, when the discussion about introducing a constitutional ban on abortion was publicly conducted, the opponents of legal abortion were for the first time more numerous than supporters of abortion rights. At present the proportions have returned to 2007 levels, when both groups were about equal in size.
Most Poles accept abortion in cases when it is legal under current law. The support for abortion rights when mother's life is in danger is almost universal (87%). Over three-quarters of respondents think that it should be available for women whose pregnancy threatens their health (78%), or was caused by rape or incest (78%). Three-fifths (60%) support the right to abortion if it is known that the child would be handicapped.
The support for legal abortion in cases when it is currently banned is much lower. About a quarter think that it should be legal if the woman is in a difficult material (26%) or personal (23%) situation. Almost one in five respondents (18%) think abortion should be legal if a woman does not want to have a child.
A poll from 2013 showed that 49% of Poles support current legislation on abortion, 34% think it should be liberalised and 9% think it should be more restrictive.
A CBOS poll from 2013 found that 75% of Poles think abortion is "always wrong and can never be justified". Only 7% thought there was "nothing wrong with it and could always be justified".
In a Pew Research poll from 2017, 8% of Polish respondents believed abortion should be legal in all cases and 33% that it should be legal in most cases. On the other hand, 38% believed that it should be illegal in most cases and 13% that it should be illegal in all cases.
In Poland, the vast majority of abortions takes place illegally, as obtaining a legal abortion is very difficult, both due to the restrictive legal grounds and because of many doctors refusing to perform lawful abortions due to being conscientious objectors. Estimates of illegal abortions per year put the numbers between 10,000 and 150,000, compared to only 1,000 - 2,000 legal abortions.
A more recent study even estimated that between 80,000 and 200,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies each year, with 10 to 15% of them estimated to seek their abortion abroad. For those women going abroad, Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are among the more popular destinations for abortions, with the UK, Austria, and Ukraine other countries women travel to for abortions. Despite the strict legislation and the conservative political discourse, Poland has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe.
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