On June 30th, the Polish Parliament debated a bill that would totally ban abortion in Poland, even if a woman’s life were in danger. The left-wing party put forward a proposal to reject the bill during the first reading but the other political parties demanded the bill be referred to committee for consideration, and their proposal won by a vote of 261 to 155.. The committee will present a report on the bill to Parliament by early September. The draft bill, named “On the protection of human life from the moment of conception” – was initially submitted to Parliament in April 2011. The draft was prepared by the Committee of Legislative Initiative led by Mariusz Dzierzawski, a fanatic opponent of abortion, known as an organizer of the macabre anti-abortion exhibitions held in the Polish cities.
Poland’s abortion law is one of the most restrictive in Europe and even more restrictive in practice than on paper. Although the law allows termination of pregnancy under three conditions – including for therapeutic reasons and when it results from a criminal act – legal abortion is actually not accessible even for women whose conditions fall under the exceptions. According to the annual report on implementation of the current abortion law (“Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion”) there are approximately 500 (out of ten million women of reproductive age) legal pregnancy terminations a year.
The legal principles are applied with great rigidity and there is widespread abuse of conscience clauses among doctors and entire institutions intended to deny women legal abortion. According to Polish law, physicians can refuse to perform abortion or dispense contraceptives on the grounds of conscientious objection. The conscientious objection clause and the way it is exercised in Poland have become a significant barrier to accessing services to which women are entitled by law. It also happens quite often in Poland that conscientious objection is ”practiced” by the entire hospital, not by individual doctors, which opposes the individuality-based concept of the conscience clause. The recent anti-choice initiative call on the pharmacists to refuse to sell the contraceptives in pharmacies, and was inspired by the Council of Europe’s recent unfortunate resolution “The right to conscientious objection clause in the legal care”.
One case that upset much of the general public concerned a visually-impaired Polish woman, who was denied an abortion on health grounds, even though medical diagnoses confirmed that continuing her pregnancy could further severely damage her vision, thereby constituting a risk to her health.
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Meanwhile the criminalization of abortion in Poland has led to the development of a vast illegal private sector with no controls on price, quality of care or accountability. Clandestine abortions generate up to $95 million a year for Polish doctors as women turn to the illegal private sector to terminate pregnancies. Since abortion became illegal in the late 1980s the number of abortions carried out in hospitals has fallen by 99 percent. The private trade in abortions is, however, flourishing, with abortion providers advertising openly in newspapers. The biggest losers are the least privileged: in 2009 the cost of a surgical abortion in Poland was greater than the average monthly income of a Polish citizen. Low-income groups are less able to protest against discrimination due to lack of political influence. Better-off women can pay for abortions generating millions in unregistered, tax-free income for doctors. Some women seek safe, legal abortions abroad in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Germany.
The newest law proposal is being debated by the Parliament, and the report is to be presented in early September. The leftist Democratic Left Alliance Party presented another bill calling for liberalization of abortion. However, the progressive bill will not be discussed by the Parliament during its current term. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October and it is becoming obvious that abortion will be the main coin used to gain voters. Pro-choice groups are currently forming an initiative to push for a liberal bill introducing refundable legal abortion till the 12th week of pregnancy, funding for contraceptives and sexual education in schools.
Poland is currently presiding over the council of the European Union, and the failure to reject this very restrictive bill on the very first day of the Presidency of the EU Council is a worrying signal to the international community. Polish groups have initiated a campaign calling on supporters to send a letter to the Prime Minister of Poland.
The letter is available at ASTRA’s website and copied below. We encourage you to send your letter opposing this law to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, firstname.lastname@example.org. We also ask that you send a cc: email@example.com.
Your Excellency, I write to express my concern that the draft text for the new bill on abortion: “The law on changing the Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion” – to be discussed by the Parliament’s Committee by the 1st of September – contains provisions on that will result in violations of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health. The international human rights standard is to liberalize abortion laws to make it safe and accessible to women and thereby lessen maternal mortality related to unsafe abortion. The language used in the draft of the new bill regarding the right to life does not correspond to that used in international and European human rights instruments – to which Poland is also party – as it unconditionally prohibits abortion, thereby leading not to lessening the number of women inducing abortion but only makes it dangerous for women who will undergo clandestine and unsafe abortion. Passing the bill will increase maternal mortality, abortion-related injuries and deaths are likely to be especially high among poor women, who can’t afford to travel abroad. As a result, many of them might try self-induced abortions. It is unacceptable that in the 21st Century, a European country includes in its legislation a provision which directly endangers women’s lives. I trust that you will do your best to ensure that Poland considers reviewing its legislation regarding abortion in a forward-looking legislation, taking the lead in promoting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Sincerely yours,