On October 22nd, 2020 Poland’s top court imposed a ruling which bans almost all abortions, even in the case of fetal deformities. The court’s decision, which cannot be appealed, will have a significant impact on reproductive rights in Poland. This ruling is a result of the degradation of Polish democracy in recent years.
The ruling bans abortion even in cases of fetal defects, including when babies may not survive childbirth. In Poland abortion is still legal in cases of: rape, incest or when the mother’s health is at risk. But as 98% of abortions conducted in Poland are due to deformities of the foetus, this ruling has sent shockwaves across the country, disproportionately impacting those with female reproductive systems.
Following Thursday’s court ruling, the Polish capital of Warsaw erupted in protest. Demonstrators congregated outside of the home of Jarosław Kaczyński, deputy Prime Minister of Poland and leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS), which holds the majority in Polish government. The right wing populist party has long been criticized for increasingly authoritarian practices, including allowing the governing party to control all state-led media, effectively removing freedom of press.
Protests in Poland have continued for one week, but the ruling against almost all abortions in Poland still stands. Why did such a ruling come about and how do such restrictive rulings impact reproductive rights?
Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. This is largely attributed to traditional and religious values. As of 2019, around 87% of the population in Poland is Roman Catholic, giving the Church a strong influence on societal values in Poland. The concept of the traditional Polish family is reinforced through laws and policies. Increasingly, the government of Poland and the Catholic church have characterized the push for gender equality and access to abortions as “anti-family” and “anti-Polish”.
In addition to the Catholic Church’s strong presence and influence on Polish law and society, in recent years there has been a steep decline in checks and balances within the government. In February, the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, enacted a legislation which erased the independence of the judiciary. The ruling, which was condemned by the E.U., permits politicians to hand out fines and fire judges whose decisions they consider harmful. Last Thursday’s ban on almost all abortions is a direct result of a justice system which which lacks accountability and gives disproportionate power to the PiS.
Effects on Reproductive Rights and Health
The Polish abortion ruling is a reflection of a clash between traditional Roman Catholic values and a new generation of beliefs, however, beyond moral debates, Thursday’s ruling will have detrimental impacts on health outcomes for years to come. Research shows that when individuals face legal restrictions and lack of access to safe abortions, they turn to the underground market, or attempt to outsource their procedures in other countries.
Physical risks of unsafe abortions include haemorrhage, infections, infertility, injuries to internal organs and in some severe cases, death.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, “the number of abortions changes little when there are legal restrictions. Instead, where abortion is most restricted, it is more likely to be unsafe. Where abortion is legal and safe services are available, deaths and disability from abortion are greatly reduced.”
Around the world, conditions for reproductive health have also considerably worsened amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The Poland abortion ruling, combined with a halt in legal abortions in Europe due to the pandemic is effectively putting many lives at risk. Those seeking legal terminations to their pregnancies have also been met with significant barriers. In Poland doctors can refuse to perform legal abortions and can deny prescriptions for contraception due to their religious beliefs. Doctors may also refuse to perform legal procedures due to fear of prosecution and stigmatization.
The UN recommends that the Polish government make legal abortion more accessible by reducing stigma against gender equality and reproductive health. Furthermore, they recommend the liberalization of abortion law and full access to reproductive health services in Poland.
Looking to the Future
Moving forward, we must continue to pay attention to the demonstrations in Poland. They are a manifestation of the unrest and dissatisfaction of the Polish people towards a government which is slowly chipping away at the fabric of democracy. When the government makes changes to the constitution by banning almost all abortions, they threaten the health and safety of Polish women and others with female reproductive systems.
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