27th Oct 2016

Polish abortion row puts women's rights on EU agenda

  • The proposal to ban abortion sparkled one of the largest protests in Poland's post-communist history. In Warsaw, women made a human chain around the Palace of Culture, a landmark monument. (Photo: Katarzyna Nurowska)

A Polish proposal to jail women who have an abortion would bring the country back to medieval times, MEPs said on Wednesday (5 October) during a debate on Polish women's rights.

The bill, which is currently examined by the Polish parliament, was “pro-death”, said Italian MEP Gianni Pittella, head of the Social Democratic group.

  • EU commissioner for justice and gender equality, Vera Jourova, wore black in solidarity with Polish women and said she had Polish ancestry. (Photo: European Parliament)

“Women’s bodies were always a battleground… used for assaults on liberal democracy and open societies,” said Austrian liberal MEP Angelika Mlinar.

It was widely reported that MPs had dropped the bill after a massive protest earlier this week, but it is still being debated and a vote is due later on Thursday.

Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is expected to instruct its MPs to reject the bill, but the party is thought to be planning to introduce another proposal seriously limiting abortion rights.

MEPs from PiS defended their party during Wednesday's debate, saying the initial proposal was a citizens’ initiative, not a government bill.

They repeated that the EU lacked the power to legislate on abortion.

EU commissioner for justice and gender equality Vera Jourova agreed that health services were “primarily a concern for the EU member states”, but said she “cannot understand this proposal, which hopefully will not be adopted”.

"We already lived through undemocratic times, in which liberty and dignity of individual people wasn’t respected,” the Czech politician said.

Abortion as right

Despite Wednesday’s bold statements, the European Parliament has in the past avoided speaking out on Polish women’s rights.

Group leaders prohibited MEPs from touching the issue in January and April this year, during wider debates on the situation in Poland.

Wednesday’s debate wasn’t accompanied by a resolution, a fact that reduced its importance.

But Green MEP Terry Reintke told EUobserver her group would try to include Polish women’s rights in the European Commission’s monitoring of the rule of law in Poland.

Swedish left-wing MEP Malin Bjork said her group had tried to introduce women's rights into the commission's rule of law probe from the very beginning, but leaders of the parliament's other fractions had blocked the effort.

"The old men leading this parliament don't understand that nothing could be fundamental than the right to decide over one's body," Bjork told this website.

A group of pro-choice MEPs also met Polish activists earlier that day to find ways of promoting their situation within the EU legislative framework.

Belgian socialist MEP Marie Arena said the EU directive on non-discrimination in access to healthcare services could serve to strengthen sexual and reproductive health within the EU.

She could also see a stronger role for the EU in promoting sexual education and fighting the misuse of conscientious objections by doctors who didn’t want to carry out abortion procedures - a problem not only in Poland, but also in Italy and other EU countries.

Polish pro-choice activist Barbara Nowacka told EUobserver MEPs understood that abortion was a fundamental right, not a question of conscience.

"The different European nations have integrated during the last years," Nowacka said. "Polish women want the same rights as their European sisters."

Wanda Nowicka, another activist, urged MEPs to speak on behalf of Polish women.

"None of the parties in the Polish parliament represents us," Nowicka said.

Polish debate

Meanwhile, the citizens’ initiative went through several reversals of fortune in the Polish parliament.

Prime minister Beata Szydlo told journalists on Tuesday that she felt humbled by opposition to the proposal.

Some 100,000 people went on strike on Monday against the bill, in one of the largest mobilisations of Polish society since the fall of communism.

But in a surprise move, the Polish parliament put up the proposal for both a first and second reading on Wednesday evening.

The chamber is due to vote on the proposal on Thursday morning. According to sources, the PiS will impose party discipline on the matter and force MPs to reject it.

But PiS MP Krystyna Pawlowicz announced already last night that PiS would come back with a party proposal that would “ban 90 percent of today’s abortions”.

The new proposal will probably seek to limit legal abortion to cases of rape and incest, and cases where the pregnancy poses an imminent risk to the life of the mother.

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