Abortion in Poland
Abortion in Poland is legal only in cases when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act or when the woman's life or health is at risk. The last change in the Act on pregnancy planning of the Republic of Poland took place on 27 January 2021, when publication of the judgment of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in the Dziennik Ustaw RP took place.
Poland is one of the few countries in the world to largely outlaw abortion after decades of permissive legislation during Polish People's Republic. About 10-15% of Polish women seek abortion in neighbouring countries due to the strict restraints in their own country. Poland's abortion law is one of the most restrictive in Europe, along with a group of other traditionally Roman Catholic countries of the region (Malta, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Vatican, Monaco and Andorra).
As of 27 January 2021, abortion is legal only in cases:
- when the woman's life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy.
- when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.
Unlike in other countries where abortion is banned, women in Poland are not subject to a penalty for illegal termination of pregnancy; the medical personnel ordering and carrying out the abortion are subject to criminal penalties including imprisonment. Consent of a physician is required for circumstance (1) above, while abortions in view of circumstance (2) above must be certified by a prosecutor. Parental consent is always required if the woman seeking abortion is a minor.
In addition, persuading a woman to carry out an illegal termination of her pregnancy is a criminal act.
Until 1932, abortion was banned in Poland without any exceptions (although an abortion performed in order to save pregnant woman's life in absence of any other means to do so, might have been considered legal, as an act of necessity). 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 law allowing unlimited abortions by Polish women was in force since March 9, 1943. This was the only time in the history of Poland, when abortion was legal on request, but in fact, abortion for Poles was often forced by Nazis, especially in German concentration camps as Waltrop-Holthausen and Ravensbrück.
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 which 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 fetus was seriously and irreversibly damaged. In 1996 amendment to law allowed abortion on social ground. This law was struck down however in 1997 by Constitutional Court.
Almost all legal abortions in Poland are performed[when?] on the grounds of fetal defects.
In June 2011, Polish anti-abortion 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 for 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, was divided on the matter; more than 60 of the party's MPs voted in favour of the bill.
Poland is one of Europe's most strongly Catholic countries, but there was no public pressure for this[clarification needed]. For years[quantify] opinion polls said a clear majority[data unknown/missing] of Poles opposed a more restrictive law.
Bishops and lay Catholic groups pressured the governing Law and Justice party to impose a stricter law. The party supports traditional Catholic values but changing it was problematic. There was opposition both in parliament and on the streets. In 2016 an estimated 100,000 people, mostly women, protested to block an attempt to tighten the law.
Abortion rights advocates say those numbers reflect the restrictions already in effect, which make it all but impossible for Polish women to obtain a legal abortion, prompting them to seek an illegal abortion or to have an abortion abroad.
"In practice it takes weeks, sometimes months," to obtain a legal abortion, said Karolina Wieckiewicz, a lawyer and activist with the group Abortion Without Borders (Polish: Aborcja bez granic). "Some people decide to risk the battle in Poland; others look for alternatives."
Dunja Mijatovic, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, which advocates for rights and democratic rule, noted that situation in criticizing the court decision.
The chief justice, Julia Przyłębska, said in a ruling that existing legislation – one of Europe's most restrictive – that allows for the abortion of malformed fetuses was incompatible with the constitution. After the ruling goes into effect, abortion will only be permissible in Poland in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health and life, which make up only about 2% of legal terminations conducted in recent years.
Support was expressed by Kaja Godek, who additionally supports the prohibition of abortion when conception occurs as a result of rape. The anti-abortion activist was asked on Radio Zet about the remaining cases of termination of pregnancy. The second option allows abortion if the pregnancy resulted from a prohibited act, such as rape (up to 12 weeks from conception). Godek stated, "I trust that this regulation will also be abolished, because we are for the full protection of life. A child conceived of rape is also a victim of rape. It has the right to conceive."
On January 27, 2021, the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal entered into force following its publication in the Journal of Laws.
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.
Graphical summary of history of Polish abortion law
|Date||Risk to life||Risk to health||Rape||Fetal impairment||Economic or social||On request|
|11 November 1918 – 1 September 1932||[a]|
|1 September 1932 – 9 March 1943|
|9 March 1943 – July 1944/January 1945|
|July 1944/January 1945 – 8 May 1956|
|8 May 1956 – 14 March 1993||[b]|
|14 March 1993 – 1 April 1997|
|1 April 1997 – 18 December 1997|
|18 December 1997 – 27 January 2021|
|27 January 2021–|
- This ground was not explicitly mentioned in the law, but it was accepted as emerging from general criminal law principles of necessity.
- De iure abortion on request illegal, but in practise was allowed due to undefined term of "economical and social reasons". In this period of time after detecting of pregancy ginecologists often asked a woman if she wanted to pregancy be removed.
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 strongest 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".
What was especially powerful about the Black Protest was the fact that there were events organized in smaller locations, too.
The Polish Black Protests sparked protests in a number of cities internationally.
The protest activities included not only demonstrating in the streets but also (depending on the location) high school students strikes, men's support events, queer community solidarity events, sending letters, changing profile pictures in the social media, fundraising events, entrepreneurs support, doctoral students’ strike, prenatal testing, collective meditation, a running race, etc.
Symbols of the protest included umbrellas and coat hangers. Specific weather conditions on 3 October 2016 contributed to establishing a symbol of the latest women's protests in Poland. It was raining during that day but still, thousands of people attended events, bringing their umbrellas to demonstrations to protect themselves from the rain. It also had its symbolic dimension - crowds visually changed into a sea of umbrellas which embodied the purpose of the Black Protest - protecting women from proposed legislation that would restrict their reproductive rights. Coat hangers were brought to the demonstrations as a symbol of the simplest and most primitive instrument that could be used for conducting abortion. Earlier in 2016 (in April), coat hangers were also sent by citizens to the contemporary Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydło, as a protest against her support for the abortion ban.
However, though social media has empowered Polish women, for some it has led to being ostracized by family members or colleagues, and has even cost them their careers. Among the best-known instances was that of Ewa Wnorowska, an educator in Zabrze who has dedicated her life to helping students at a school for children with disabilities. On the day of the first Black Protest, as the movement in support of women's rights in Poland became known, she took a photograph with eleven other colleagues, all wearing black, to show solidarity with the cause. Unbeknownst to her at the time of posting, the photograph gained national traction; it was being splashed over Polish newspapers, social media, and debated far and wide. One of her male colleagues reposted the image with inflammatory comments, and lodged a formal complaint in front of the Disciplinary Board of Education against her. Since then, Human Rights Watch published a 75-page report in February 2019 titled "'The Breath of the Government on My Back': Attacks on Women's Rights in Poland," which has found that government agencies have dragged employees who support women's rights protests or collaborate with women's rights groups before disciplinary hearings and threatened their jobs. The report argued that these were not exceptional cases. A climate of fear arose in Poland, where cases like Wnorowska's were used to show ordinary people that speaking out against the government has consequences.
Although the strikes did not result in a complete reversal of anti-abortion laws in Poland, it brought the conversation of women's reproductive rights to national attention. Thousands of women wore black in solidarity with the cause. Moreover, the protest succeeded in deterring the government from passing a proposed law that would restrict all abortions.
2020 Constitutional Tribunal ruling
On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal, consisting mainly of judges appointed by the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS), declared the law authorising abortions for malformed fetuses to be unconstitutional, effectively banning most of the small number of official abortions carried out in Poland. Street protests by people opposed to the ruling took place on 22 October, and in 60 Polish towns on the night of 23 October, and again on 24 October, in the town centres, in front of PiS offices, and in front of the office of religious administrations. On 25 October, protesters staged sit-ins in Catholic churches, disrupting Sunday Mass in several cities, including Katowice and Poznań.
On 23 October, the prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued an order for the Military Gendarmerie to help the civilian police in the "protection of safety and public order" starting from 28 October 2020 (a nationwide women's strike is scheduled for that day). The official reason for the order was the COVID-19 pandemic in Poland. TVN24 commented that the order was issued during the women's rights protests. The Polish Ministry of Defence stated on Twitter that the Military Gendarmerie's policing role was "standard" and unrelated to the women's rights protests.
UN independent human rights experts criticize the Poland court's ruling for a near complete ban on abortions on the grounds of fatal or severe foetal impairment. They also called the Polish authorities to respect the rights of men and women protesting against the court's ruling.
The ruling was published in the Journal of Laws on 27 January 2021 and is effective as of this date.
Stances of political parties
Confederation wants to "protect human life from the moment of conception". Ruling Law and Justice supports abortion only in case of danger to woman's health and rape. Civic Platform wants to allow abortion for socioeconomic reasons. The Left supports abortion on demand up to 12th week.
In a 2014 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 a poll from 2019, 58% of respondents said that "Women in Poland should have the right to abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy", 35% was against and 7% of respondents had no opinion on that topic.
A poll undergone during the first week of the October-November 2020 Polish protests found that 22% of respondents support abortion on demand to the 12th week of pregnancy, 62% support it only in certain circumstances, 11% support making abortion fully illegal while 5% are undecided.
The Polish Ministry of Health publishes yearly official data on legal abortions and their reasons. The number has been stable over the years, between 1,000 and 2,000. In 2019, there were 1110 legal abortions, 1074 of them were for cases of fetal defects. Among these, 271 were for Down's syndrome without other anomalies, and 60 cases were for Patau syndrome or Edward's syndrome without other anomalies.
Estimates vary as to how many illegal abortions are carried out each year. The Federation for Women and Family Planning, a feminist NGO, gives a range between 80,000 and 200,000 abortions, and about a quarter of all Polish women had terminated a pregnancy. The Public Opinion Research Center has the same estimate.
Another way to guess the number of illegal abortions in Poland is to look at worldwide behavior and trends. According to Sedgh, Singh, Henshaw and Bankole in a 2012 article published in The Lancet, drawing on various reports, the number of fertile women (aged 15–44) who undergo an abortion ranges between about 10 to 40 abortions per 1000 women, for the 2000s, "in all regions of the world, regardless of the status of abortion laws"; this would imply lower to upper estimates of yearly abortions by Polish women of about 75,000 to 300,000.
A 2010 study estimates up to 30,000 seek legal 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.
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Because few of the abortion estimates were based on studies of random samples of women, and because we did not use a model-based approach to estimate abortion incidence, it was not possible to compute confidence intervals based on standard errors around the estimates. Drawing on the information available on the accuracy and precision of abortion estimates that were used to develop the subregional, regional, and worldwide rates, we computed intervals of certainty around these rates (webappendix). We computed wider intervals for unsafe abortion rates than for safe abortion rates. The basis for these intervals included published and unpublished assessments of abortion reporting in countries with liberal laws, recently published studies of national unsafe abortion, and high and low estimates of the numbers of unsafe abortion developed by WHO.
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