Poland’s Abortion Ban and a Movement to the Right
Donald Trump has made headlines in recent weeks with his fluctuating positions on abortion. From believing that women who get abortions should endure “some sort of punishment” to acquiescing to the existing US laws, Trump has exhibited almost every opinion on the spectrum of Republican abortion rhetoric. Looking between the lines of his multiple, conflicting statements on the issue we can find one common thread: someone should be punished, in one way or another, when an abortion takes place.
Trump’s recent statements set a convenient stage for the discussion of Poland’s heated abortion debate. No matter how easy it may be to compare the two, a frightening possibility for the women of the United States is a frightening reality for the women of Poland.
Women in Poland had greater access to abortions before conservative legislation was introduced in 1993, eliminating “difficult living conditions” as a ground for legal termination of a fetus. Even before 1993, most abortions needed to be approved by two gynecologists, a general practitioner, and a state-approved psychologist, making it much more difficult to even receive permission to perform the act. These are liberal compared to today, as new leadership in the country has transformed Poland into one of the strictest countries in banning abortions when compared to its European neighbors. Due to the most recent laws, abortions can only be accessed in three cases: when the health of the mother is at risk, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if the fetus has a severe disability. This is already extremely restrictive and women often drive outside the country in order to access safe and legal abortion clinics. The Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has had a majority in the Polish parliament since 2015, has taken to supporting a citizen’s bill that calls for even more restrictive laws. Called the “Stop Abortion” campaign, it requires at least 100,000 signatures before it can be submitted before the MPs as a bill.
This new bill proposes that the only case in which abortion should be allowed is in the case of a health risk to the mother. More than that, it calls for up to five years in prison for any person, mother or doctor, who knowingly causes the death of an unborn child. This bill is backed by the Polish Catholic Church, one of the largest supporters of the Law and Justice Party. Polish bishops have made their support known: “Catholics’ position on this is clear, and unchangeable. One needs to protect every person’s life from conception to natural death”.
The required signatures are predicted to come easily, as there has been overwhelming support for the proposed bill, mostly due to the conservative Catholic morality that has permeated the Polish government since the last elections. The head of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and his handpicked prime minister, Beata Szydlo, both support the “Stop Abortion” campaign and are confident that parliament would pass the bill should it be heard. Szydlo said that “every MP will vote in line with his own conscience,” and her conscience is telling her, apparently, to support the initiative. Kaczynski also emphasizes his support in terms of morality, saying that as a Catholic he is “subject to the teachings of bishops.”. The fact that two of the most powerful leaders in the country are being very vocal in their support of this bill is a great cause for concern for women in Poland.
News of this possibility has not gone uncontested. Polish socialist parties protested in front of parliament earlier in the week and pro-choice advocates have also raised issue with the bill. This is not the only recent incident of liberal dissatisfaction with the Polish government. Since PiS’s rise to power in parliament, many have been questioning whether or not Poland is a democracy on the fall. In the past few months, we’ve seen Kaczynski warn that refugees may spread infectious diseases, tapping into the nationalist sentiments that are so pervasive in Poland. The movement to the far right is concerning in its rapid attempts to control state institutions, starting with a new media law that will give the government much more control over state-run television and radio and changes to the country’s top court, making it necessary for there to be a two-thirds majority of 15 judges to make a ruling. Despite Poland’s Constitutional Court ruling these changes unconstitutional, the government refuses to make any adjustments in response to the domestic and international pushback.
Looking at the conservative initiatives that the Law and Justice Party has taken so far, it would not be surprising to see the abortion ban pass and become law. There are a number of issues that arise from this possibility: first, the health and safety of every Polish woman would be threatened in the case of a total ban on abortion, even more so than it is under Poland’s current laws. Second, this plays worryingly into the trend of authoritarianism that we see in Poland. Once the model country for economic and social success in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Poland needs to carefully consider its next moves. The EU is already concerned; the European Commission has opened a “probe” into the inner workings of the Polish government. Hopefully the quick international response will prevent Poland from following in the footsteps of its increasingly authoritarian neighbor, Hungary.
- Alexie Schwarz