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Polish government to back down on full abortion ban?

The Polish government looks set to dilute proposals to tighten one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws. Following mass protests, the government is for the first time since taking office talking of humility.

Comments from government members on Wednesday indicate the government is softening its support for the unpopular proposal, which would ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at risk.

Speaker of the upper house Senate, Stanislaw Karczewski, said on Wednesday that governing Law and Justice (PiS) MPs were set to drop plans to push their own draft legislative bill on abortion.

"We will now see how the proposal fares in parliament," said Karczewski, although he reiterated that he did support proposals to outlaw abortions of fetuses with Down Syndrome - which is currently one of the few cases in Poland where terminating a pregnancy is legal. "They are wonderful children, very much loved by their parents, very loving parents, bringing a lot of warmth and a lot of love into a home. I am a great opponent of killing such children," Karczewski said.

Another government member, Science and Higher Education Minister Jaroslaw Gowin, said on Wednesday that recent protests had been a lesson in "humility" for the country's leadership and that "there will not be a total abortion ban," adding that recent protests against the restrictions have "caused us to think and taught us humility."

Poland already has restrictive rules on abortion, which allow it only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother or baby have serious health problems. The new proposal - put forward by the anti-abortion campaign group Ordo Iuris - would limit abortion to cases where the mother's life was deemed to be in direct danger. Women and doctors could face prison if convicted of causing what the proposed rules call "death of a conceived child."

In June 2011, Polish anti-abortion NGOs collected more than 500,000 signatures for a proposed bill to ban abortion in Poland altogether. The bill, rejected then by a majority of MPs, got enough support to be sent to a committee in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in order to be subject to further amendments. This time around, however, a PiS majority would swing the balance.

The Black Monday protests in Warsaw this week.

The Black Monday protests in Warsaw this week.

Protests

Thousands of women have taken part inprotests against the bill, not least this Monday when women dressed in black and many boycotted work or classes. 

Initially on Tuesday, the government came out fighting, with Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski telling reporters in Warsaw that the protests were "marginal" and "a mockery of important issues."

Soon after, though, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo had stepped in to say she did not approve of Waszczykowski's comments and that her government would not pursue changes to the law.

"I want to say it very loudly and clearly: the government of PiS is not working on any law that would change the currently binding regulations," she said.

PiS also does not want to antagonize the Catholic Church, which backed the party in its 2016 election campaign, when it won a small outright majority in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, the first party to do so since the end of communism in 1989.

The proposal may now die at the parliamentary commission stage or could still go to parliament, where some MPs still support it. A parliamentary commission is now analyzing the bill, although MPs have already voted against considering a separate initiative for a more liberal abortion law.

International pressure

The PiS administration is also under international pressure not to move forward with the idea, with a debate scheduled later Wednesday in the European Parliament on the situation of women in Poland.

The Federation for Women and Family Planning estimates that about 150,000 illegal abortions are performed each year. Legal abortions in Poland, which has a population of 38 million, are limited to around 700 to 1,800 per year. The National Health Fund says there were over 1,800 abortions in 2014, compared to over 1,350 in 2013.

jbh/msh (AP, Reuters)

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