Poland’s new anti-abortion law: A right to life? But what kind of life?

On the 20th of October 2020, the Polish government ruled a widespread ban on abortions, due to its apparent violation of the constitutional right to life, leading to an explosion of protests across the country, and globally. Under this new rule, abortions are only legally permitted in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s health is severely at risk. This is a deeper shift into the depths of the ruling Law and Justice party’s far-right conservatism, as the preceding 1933 abortion law accounted for legal terminations in cases presenting severe fetal disabilities. The exemption of this legal path for an abortion effectively bans the practice almost entirely, as 98% of abortions in recent years occurred due to major fetal disabilities.


Even before the newly imposed ban, which by the way, occurred without any parliamentary bill or prior public discussion, Poland was one of the strictest and most conservative abortion regulators in the European Union. Because of this restricted access, known abortion rates were considerably low in Poland, with about 0.0096% of women having one. The key word here, however, is known. While it is estimated that less than 2,000 known, legal, registered abortions are carried out in Poland each year, there are projections, outlined by the BBC, of up to 200,000 abortions occurring either abroad, or illegally, which inevitably puts many Polish women’s lives and welfare in danger.


In grasping this, one must consider the intent of the ruling PiS Government, and question their regard for women’s rights and prosperity. If so few legal, known abortions are carried out every year, are they not predominantly making a statement disregarding women’s rights, rather than actually trying to crack down on abortion rates? By imposing these new restrictions, it seems as though the Polish Government are effectively turning a blind eye to the inevitability of higher rates of illegal abortions, which does not point towards a government who cares for the rights, liberties, and most importantly, welfare of it’s women.


Despite strict Coronavirus restrictions, the people of Poland have taken to the streets of major cities such as Poznan, Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow to express their anger and aversion for not only the imposed abortion law, but the government’s dealings in general.  Opinions among protestors appear to be largely unanimous, with women in particular feeling disregarded by their own government, and obligated to protest this oppressive regime. Protesting signs read statements such as ‘this is war’, ‘you have blood on your hands’, and ‘I wish I could abort my government.’ Krystyna Kacpura, head of Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland says ‘it’s a disgrace from the Polish state towards half of the population. We’ll never forget it.’ And certainly no one has shown any signs of forgetting this ruling, with weeks of major protests erupting not just in Poland, but all over the world. Large gatherings have come together in support of women’s rights and to express solidarity for Poland in major cities such as New York, Berlin and Perth. Though angry and protesting for change, this necessity for protest is undoubtedly a cynical outcome of an oppressive regime. Dunja Mijatoivc, the council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, describes the introduction of the new law as ‘a sad day for women’s rights.’


Interestingly, it is not just women and the left presiding liberals who are against the new abortion law. Despite having one of the strongest Roman Catholic presences in Europe, the BBC’s Adam Easton reports that polls claim there is a clear majority against making the abortion law stricter. It seems that despite one’s own beliefs on the matter, there is widespread consensus that abolishing abortion not only robs women of their choice, but puts their welfare at stake as well, a situation that the vast majority would like to avoid.


Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who now leads the centre-right European People’s Party grouping, raises the important note that the ruling court on this matter was unfairly constructed in favour of the Law and Justice Party, with 14 of the 15 judges ruling on the implementation of the law being from the PiS party. Tusk also notes the inappropriate timing of this decision, notably amidst a pandemic, culminating his thoughts in a tweet stating ‘throwing the topic of abortion and ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical’.


The Polish government claims itself to be a defender of traditional catholic values, and aims to push back against liberal western ideas. ‘Defend Poland, defend patriotism, defend polish churches’ says Vice Prime Minister Kaczynski, one of the most prominent members of this regime, when calling upon conservative supporters. The Catholic Church, for the first time since the 1989 collapse of communism, has become a major point of contention, as many begin to question its authority in governing their lives. The Polish government’s decision to base the groundings of their decision in supposed Catholic teachings on abortions, however, makes an enemy of the church to the people, and appears to detracts from the PiS government actually being the ones imposing this authoritarian, freedom-grabbing abortion law, and not the Catholic Church.


While Poland’s ruling on abortion has upset many due to reasons of health and safety, it has also had a profound effect on the perceptions of freedom and choice, and their deprivation, particularly for women. A particularly poignant statement encapsulating this feeling is that of 34 year-old protestor, Magda, who said ‘women are not respected in this country, no one is listening to us.’ While the lack of respect is evident in many ways, the lack of listening is not. The Law and Justice party government undoubtedly appear to lack respect or empathy for women in Poland, but they are in a certain position of discomfort and uncertainty amidst the backlash faced for their recent decision. The government, as of Tuesday the 3rd of November, have indefinitely delayed the publication of the court’s ruling, which prevents it from going into legal force, in an apparent response to the protests. President Andrzej Duda submitted a ‘proposal of change’ to parliament, in response to the social unrest, that would slightly ease the restrictions of the court by allowing the abortion of fetuses with lethal abnormalities.


The people of Poland, and those protesting around the world, have expressed an undeniable desire to move towards a more secular governing, where beliefs can still be accommodated for and validated under each individual’s own terms. Choice, and freedom, above all, are human rights. This right, however, seems, albeit incorrectly, incompatible with the PiS’ use of the right to life as the defining argument favouring the ban on abortion. One must question then; what sort of life they are seeking to preserve? With very little institutional support in Poland for families with disabled children, it becomes clear the simplicity of speaking in conceptual terms of loving and preserving all human life. The real question one may ask, is what happens to this love and placing of intrinsic value on a life when this life is not of the PiS’ ultra-conservative preference? What real, non-conceptual value is placed on those of marginalized groups, and importantly in this instance, women?

Image credit: Michelle Ding via UnSplash

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