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Poland's abortion law bickering plagues Tusk coalition

April 15, 2024

The liberalization of abortion rights was a major election promise made by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. But the issue is controversial and there are major hurdles to a new law.

Parliamentarian Anna Maria Zukowska and Katarzyna Kotula with a receipt for what they call the country's abortion debt in the debate on April 11
Parliamentarians Anna Maria Zukowska and Katarzyna Kotula held up a receipt for what they called the country's abortion debt during the debate on April 11Image: Marek Antoni Iwanczuk/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/picture alliance

Polish women had to wait a long time for this day. Some four months after the center-left coalition under Donald Tusk took office, the liberalization of abortion was finally on the agenda for the Sejm, the country's lower house of parliament. The debate was fierce.

"Old men in suits will no longer decide what women must do with their bodies," shouted Anna Maria Zukowska, a member of parliament for the co-governing The Left alliance, at the presentation of the bill on Friday. "No more hell for women!"

Left-wing lawmaker Anna Maria Zukowska during the debate on the amendment of Poland's abortion law
Left-wing lawmaker Anna Maria Zukowska spoke during the debate on the amendment of Poland's abortion lawImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo/picture alliance

"We want to make our own decisions about our bodies, our health and our lives," said Monika Wielichowska from Tusk's liberal-conservative Civic Coalition.

"We have waited long enough, now action must be taken," added several MPs from the ruling coalition.

The liberalization of abortion rights was a central issue in the election campaign led by Tusk and his allies last year. The large turnout of women contributed significantly to the coalition's victory in the parliamentary election.

Poland's abortion rules among most restrictive in Europe

Abortion regulations in the traditionally Catholic nation are among the most restrictive in Europe. The procedure is permitted only if the life or health of the mother is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest. In recent years, several women have died because doctors refused to perform an abortion or have done so too late for fear of criminal prosecution.

Abortion rights increase globally — with exceptions

Tusk had promised a quick remedy during his election campaign, but soon after forming the government clear differences emerged between the left-wing and Christian-conservative forces in his three-party coalition.

The first bills introduced by the New Left were delayed by parliamentary speaker Szymon Holownia. He postponed the debate, which was supposed to take place after the first round of the local elections, on April 7, to the week after the second and final round, on April 21. He presumably feared that a dispute within the coalition could have a negative impact on the election result.

Coalition strife

There has been bickering in recent weeks between the The Left alliance and Holownia's more conservative Third Way electoral alliance. Many politicians, particularly in the Christian-conservative Polish People's Party, would rather listen to the parish priest than Tusk. Both sides have accused the other of lying and used vulgar language, poisoning the atmosphere in the governing coalition.

Despite these differences, the coalition parties attempted to demonstrate unity during the Sejm debate. The four drafts on the table were sent forward to a special committee, with the aim now being to find a workable compromise, though it appears that this will be no easy task.

The Left alliance wants abortion to be permitted up to the 12th week of pregnancy and to be paid for by the state. It also wants abortion to be decriminalized by deleting Section 152 of the Criminal Code, which provides for prison sentences of up to three years for abortion assistance. Previously, a woman's next of kin were often at risk for prosecution: parents or husbands who had, for example, procured money for the abortion.

Theatrics on the parliamentary floor

The Third Way, on the other hand, would like to return to the old compromise of 1993, which allowed abortion even in the case of fetal abnormalities, though it was later removed by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2020 at the suggestion of the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). This plan also includes a referendum to be held on how far liberalization should go.

"The right to abortion is a human right. You cannot vote on human rights," said left-wing lawmaker Zukowska.

Women protest in front of a Warsaw court in October 2022 during the trial of an activist who accused of "aiding and abetting abortion"
Women protested in front of a Warsaw court in October 2022 during the trial of an activist who was accused of 'aiding and abetting abortion'Image: Monika Sieradzka/DW

The right-wing parliamentary groups — PiS and Confederation — protested vehemently against the planned relaxation of the abortion ban during the debate. Conservative lawmaker Dariusz Matecki entered the chamber with a banner depicting a 10-week-old fetus and played sounds meant to represent the heartbeat of the unborn child.

Far-right politician Roman Fritz accused the "abortion lobby" of having adopted the ideas of Adolf Hitler. You are the "avant-garde of the civilization of death," he said, addressing the Left.

Waiting for a new president

Regardless of the outcome of this week's parliamentary debate, Polish women will likely still have to travel to the Czech Republic, Germany or the Netherlands for abortions for a long time to come. It's certain that President Andrzej Duda will block any attempt to soften the abortion ban with his veto, and the coalition lacks the necessary three-fifths majority to overrule the arch-conservative head of state.

A liberal abortion law can only come into force after Duda leaves office in the summer of 2025. And then only if a more progressive candidate, such as Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, is elected as his successor.

This article was originally written in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects