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Abortion debate undermines Polish democracy

Jo Harper
April 15, 2016

Despite having one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, Poland wants to go even further and ban abortion altogether. As the government continues to push its anti-progressive agenda, many Poles are up in arms.

People demonstrate against plans of tightening the abortion law in Warsaw, Poland April 9. The placards read, from left" "I want choice!!!", "Abortion is my business" , "My body= my right"
Pro-abortion protesters holding placards reading "I want choice!!!," "Abortion is my business," "My body= my right"Image: Reuters/K. Pempel

The ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) - which is closely affiliated with the Catholic Church in Poland - has been very vocal in its expression of conservative views since winning post-communist Poland's first single-party majority in elections in September. Among other things, it has voiced criticism of homosexuality as a "lifestyle," clearly stated its opposition to same-sex marriage and IVF, and largely supported banning abortion, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Revisiting old battles

The plans to reduce abortion to almost zero seem to be a key element of the party's mission to impose - or re-impose - a more traditional narrative and set of moral codes on a society that is increasingly divided between those that want to hold on to the past in what they see as a dangerous and frightening new world, and those that see the last 26 years since the fall of communism as a period of Westernization, liberalism and tolerance.

"During the general election campaign [PiS leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski appealed to a highly conservative electorate and by doing so unleashed radical right-wing demons, who are now thirsty for blood," says Agnieszka Laszczuk, a journalist at Polish Radio.

"In order to quench that thirst, which in this case is the need to re-establish patriarchal control over women’s bodies, PiS is apparently ready to pass a horrendous bill, which would mostly affect the lives of lower-class women who cannot afford either getting a backstreet abortion or going abroad," Laszczuk says.

These "culture wars" are taking place on several battle fields simultaneously, with PiS attacking the EU's refugee quota system, as well as tampering with an independent judiciary, media and education system.

Critics say the PiS government has neutered the country's highest court. It certainly moved fast in late 2015 to amend the law on how the Constitutional Tribunal – Poland's highest body to rule on the constitutionality of laws – functions.

With the tribunal effectively stymied, the first battle has been won, critics suggest. Now the bridgehead is in place, the infantry can cross into enemy territory.

Poland Protests - People Power on the March

"Western leaders now have 9 million reasons to reconsider their approach [to the PiS government] - one reason for each Polish woman of reproductive age, for whom the lack of effective constitutional checks and balances is no longer an abstract political problem," says Maciej Kisilowski, a professor of law and public management and Director of Initiative for Regulatory Innovation at Central European University.

"Despite the Constitutional Tribunal's traditional conservatism on social issues, it would surely reject the key provisions of the proposed abortion law – a prospect that would empower PiS moderates to rein in their extremist colleagues. After all, if a proposed law cannot survive judicial review, why pick a divisive political fight in the first place?" Kisilowski says.

"Poland's abortion bill may be just the beginning of a frightening stream of policy proposals aimed at dismantling basic human rights and rule-of-law protections in Poland," he adds.

He points to a program of funding for in-vitro fertilization - which has led to some 3,600 births - that will be closed in July. Government subsidies are also to be scrapped for the costly "morning-after" pill.

Culture wars

In many ways, the culture wars have been framed in 21st century Poland as a struggle between the last government headed by liberal Civic Platform (PO), and PiS.

But this is perhaps more a struggle about modernity, about joining (or not) the modern world, and negotiating and sifting the mass of largely imported modernity across the cultural, political, social and economic spheres.

The process of initiating and managing a breakneck jump into modernity since 1989 in Poland - and elsewhere in the region - has been accompanied by versions of what one may characterize as PO‘s "managed opening" - embracing the globalized world - and PiS' "managed closing" - a far more skeptical sifting of things "Western," including abortion.

PiS' discourse has tended to be far closer to the populism and ethno-nationalist rhetoric of the far-right than the moderate centrism of PO on many issues.

Populism is a rejection of key elements of modernity, based on assumptions of a fundamental unity of "the people." Populism also emphasizes negativism and reacts against elites, institutions and various "others," thus engendering anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, anti-Russian, anti-German, anti-urbanist and anti-modernist viewpoints, among others.

PiS' political discourse has been based largely on this kind of negation, with a perjorative use of labels such as "post-communist," "liberal," and "euro enthusiast."

Tightening the law

Current legislation, which dates back to 1993, dictates that abortions are illegal except when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, poses a health risk to the mother or the fetus is damaged.

PiS' proposal would allow abortion only if the mother's life is in danger, and would lift maximum jail terms for those carrying out illegal terminations from two to five years. Moreover, anyone in Poland who provided information about or made arrangements for a legal abortion abroad would be charged as an accessory.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo both say they back the idea. More than 100 Polish journalists also recently signed an open letter to members of the parliament supporting the ban and encouraging legislators to change the current law.

Birds and bees, facts and figures

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.

Some women travel to Germany, where abortion is technically unlawful but tolerated until the 12th week of pregnancy, or to other nearby countries where restrictions are laxer. In Berlin, for example, some women are helped by Ciocia Basia ("Aunt Basia"), a network of activists that introduces Polish women to sympathetic gynecologists and puts them up at volunteers' homes.

This is partly because the grounds on which a procedure can be requested in Poland are restrictive, and partly because obtaining an abortion remains difficult because of the so-called conscience clause, which allows medical staff to refuse to perform an abortion if it goes against their personal beliefs.

The church cashes in its political chips

Some see the socially conservative PiS as paying back the influential church for its assistance in galvanizing support at last year's election, via organs such as Radio Maryja. Abortion, IVF and homosexuality are top of the church's "to do"(or perhaps "not to do") list.

A woman holds a coat hanger, a symbol of underground abortions during a demonstration against a potential ban on abortion in Warsaw, Poland
The coat hanger: a potent symbolImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/A. Ferensowicz

Speaking at a March 30 Sejm pro-life conference, Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw, who heads the Polish church's bioethics commission, said "every human life, regardless of usefulness and serviceability," should be legally protected, adding that a growing disregard for life had "degraded medicine and social life."

On Sunday April 3, a formal campaign for a ban began. Bishops nationwide read an open letter in churches, claiming life began at the moment of conception and ended with natural death. The letter called on "all people, parliamentarians and government officials to ensure the legal protection of unborn children."

The bill gained more attention after the recent story of a late-term baby who allegedly was born alive after a failed abortion attempt at a Warsaw hospital and screamed for an hour as it was left to die.

A protester holds a banner during a protest against plans of introduction of new abortion ban law in front of the Sejm (lower house of Parliament), in Warsaw, Poland, 03 April
Protest against the harsher law in front of the parliamentImage: picture alliance/dpa/J. Kmaniski

"The call to tighten the anti-abortion law is the bill that the church wants Law and Justice to pay in return for the huge support," Zbigniew Mikolejko, a sociologist, told AP. "But tightening of the law will push people away from the church," Mikolejko said, adding: "It is a suicidal step that will also weaken the ruling party."

And he may have a point

"I personally think that this bill should be much more liberal and should not interfere with the rights of women making decisions about their lives," says psychologist Zuza Swierczynska.

"From my perspective, plans for an absolute ban on abortion even in the case of serious damage to the fetus, rape or life-threatening health risks to women, with the possible penalty of long-term imprisonment, is unacceptable state interference in the life of a woman affected by personal tragedy. I do not see any rational justification for the introduction of these provisions, all the more so given that I'm a non-believer."

"I cannot understand why the current ruling political class wants to impose its worldview on the rest of society by force. Such a policy shows complete immaturity and irresponsibility, and I'm going to protest against it in every way permissible in a democratic society," Swierczynska says.

100,000 signatures needed

The legislative initiative is awaiting a decision from the parliamentary speaker on whether it will be registered. If successful, the Stop Abortion committee will have three months to garner 100,000 signatures to ensure that the law will be debated in the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament.

Protesters hold banners during a protest against plans of introduction of new abortion ban law in front of the Sejm (lower house of Parliament), in Warsaw, Poland, 03 April 2016
Many feel an absolute ban would be going too farImage: picture alliance/dpa/J. Kmaniski

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 Sejm committee in order to be subject to further amendments. This time around, however, a PiS majority may swing the balance.

Opinion split

In the latest poll on abortion by the CBOS Public Opinion Research Center, 69 percent of Poles viewed abortion as "immoral and unacceptable," 14 percent of Poles were ambivalent and 14 percent viewed it as acceptable. But only one in seven (14 percent ) supports the complete ban of all abortions, while more than one-third (36 percent) believe there should be exceptions.

At the same time, almost half (45 percent) think that abortion should be permitted. Support for abortion rights when a mother's life is in danger is almost universal (87 percent). About a quarter think that it should be legal if the woman is in a difficult material (26 percent) or personal (23 percent) situation. Almost one in five respondents (18 percent) think abortion should be legal if a woman does not want to have a child.