Poland's politics of abortion

A citiziens' initiative seeking a reform of Poland's abortion law is facing a crucial test in parliament. This is the latest phase of a long struggle over women's reproductive rights. It is also part of a changing Poland's wider debate about what kind of country it should be, says Agnieszka Mrozik.
Agnieszka Mrozik
13 December 2011

The scheduling of Poland's general election for 9 October 2011 ensured an unusually hot political summer. A discussion in the Sejm (the Polish parliament's lower house) in early July ensured that the campaign would be marked by lively debates on a topic that has been growing in prominence in recent years: women's reproductive rights.

The Sejm was at that point the locus of a citizens' initiative organised by the PRO-Right to Life Foundation that proposed tightening a law in force since 1993 that governs "family planning, protection of the human foetus, and conditions for legal abortion". This law prohibits abortion except in cases where the mother's life or health is endangered; where the foetus has been damaged severely and irreversibly; or when the pregnancy is an effect of rape or incest. In turn it replaced a law passed in 1956, during the political thaw in Poland that followed the death of Stalin, which also permitted the termination of a pregnancy where the woman's living conditions were considered difficult.

The political atmosphere at the time of the 1993 law was dominated by an urge to remove what were seen as the relics of "people's [i.e. communist] Poland". The law was supported by Catholic circles and the political right, which saw the prohibition of abortion a means to the physical and moral "revival of the Polish nation", but strongly opposed by a large part of Polish society. This was expressed in a citizens' petition which demanded a referendum over whether or not the existing law should be maintained. A million people signed the petition, but no referendum was held and the bill penalising abortion became law.

Its provisions are severe and cumbersome. For example, doctors who perform illegal abortions can be sent to prison for up to two years, and those who induce a woman to have an abortion or help perform it can also be penalised. Even where the conditions that make abortion legal are met, a series of bureaucratic obstacles must be overcome to secure final permission. And many doctors invoke the "conscience clause", which often leads to the woman being obliged to go from one doctor to another and in the process of exceed the twelve-week limit beyond which termination is illegal.

The Federacja na rzecz Kobiet i Planowania (Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning / FKPR, an NGO which for two decades has campaigned to change the 1993 law) shows that each year, many women facing procedural complications or whose pregnancy results from an illegal act are unable to obtain an abortion. Some have died as a result, others, such as Alicja Tysiac, have suffered damage to their health after being obliged to continue with a pregnancy that could have been legally terminated. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a lawsuit brought by Alicja Tysiac against the Polish state, and in 2009 she won a case against the Catholic weekly Gość Niedzielny (Sunday's Guest), which several times had compared her to a Nazi.

The FKPR emphasises that the Polish health ministry's annual reports (which indicate that in 2010 there were 614 legal abortions) take no notice of the thousands of "underground abortion" cases, where crude techniques can endanger health and even life. In 2010, Marek Balicki - a parliamentarian from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) - presented a report on "abortion tourism" by Polish women in search of a legal termination in countries such as the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain. The report stresses how humiliating and expensive these travels are, and moreover that since the "abortion compromise" of 1993 several attempts have been made to extend the law (for example, in 2006 the Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families [LPR]) sought to inscribe a total abortion ban into the Polish constitution).

A further such effort was made by pro-life activists in 2011 who organised the aforementioned citizens' project which reached the Sejm in July. 600,000 people had signed up to support a ban on prenatal testing as well as abortion, based on claims that "a foetus is a human" and that "every human has the right to life from the moment of conception until natural death". This led to the project being considered by two parliamentary committees and then subjected to a vote in the lower house on 31 August, when the Sejm rejected the project by the narrow margin of 191-189. The same day, the Sejm voted down a rival proposal (submitted by the SLD) that called for liberalisation of the existing law to take account of the woman's social circumstances (this echoed a amendment approved in 1997, when the SLD was the governing party, but which was later overturned by Poland's constitutional tribunal).

Yes for Women

This is the background to the decision by feminist NGOs, informal groups and academic centres for gender studies to seek to reform the extremely restrictive law governing abortions in Poland. They prepared an independent initiative called Tak dla Kobiet (Yes for Women) whose centrepiece was a draft bill - the "law on responsible parenthood and other reproductive rights" - that if passed would guarantee four rights (to self-determination in the field of reproduction, information and counselling, medical care and material help, and sex education appropriate to age and the needs of pupils). The initiative is currently seeking to gather the 100,000 signatures from people opposed to the encroachment on women's rights represented by the 1993 law.

There are precedents too of this kind of campaign. In 2000, the so-called Manifa - an early, and continuing, example of feminist protest - walked through Warsaw's streets to demand the liberalisation of the anti-abortion bill; in 2002, the "letter of 100 women" (from the fields of science, culture, and education) denounced the "bartering away" of women's rights in exchange for the Catholic church's support for Poland's entry to the European Union. What is different about Yes for Women is that it involves a vast mobilisation of citizens on a topic that for twenty years has been discussed solely by politicians and priests.

The number of signatories is crucial, for two reasons: a minimum of 100,000 is required by Polish law for the draft to be debated in parliament; and the higher the number, the clearer the signal sent by society to the politicians.

Many Polish women do not want to lose rights achieved by their mothers and grandmothers, or to see their daughters live in a country that denies them the ability to make decisions about their own bodies. Yet amid a fading memory of the fact that Polish women once had and then lost such a right, the number of declared supporters of the right of women to abortion is decreasing. The reasons for this trend include the influence of the media and mass culture in generating and reinforcing conservative attitudes amongst Polish women and men. The pro-life rhetoric, with its appeal to "the rights of the foetus", combines with the marketised belief that the ability to pay should determine access to a certain service. The result is further pressure on the rights of women.

A key parliamentary decision on the Yes for Women citizens' initiative will be taken on 15 December 2011. The result of Poland's general election in October has given the cause supporters in the Sejm, in the form of representatives of a new political force: Ruch Poparcia Palikota (Palikot Support Movement). This group - named after its founder, Janusz Palikot - received many votes (10% of the total) from those, mainly young people, devoted to making Poland a more free, open and tolerant country. The party is the second, after the SLD, to campaign for changes to the abortion law. Its impact is a sign, as Krzysztof Bobinski writes, that the wind of change is blowing on the Polish political scene.

Wanda Nowicka, the head of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning and a committee member of Yes for Women, is one of the Palikot Support Movement's members of parliament. She is also now deputy speaker of the Sejm for its current term. This alone guarantees that the topic of reproductive rights in Poland will be approached boldly in the coming period, and not merely as a passing election issue. Those campaigning for changes in the law to enlarge women's rights hope that Poland's hot political season will last through the winter too.

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