Monday

24th Sep 2018

Opinion

EU's 'old men' must pressure Poland on abortion rights

  • A protest against the Polish ruling party's policies in 2016. An estimated 150,000 women have left Poland in order to have abortions in neighbouring countries (Photo: Eric Maurice)

Abortion is back again at the centre of Polish politics.

Just over a year since the 'Black Protests' of 2016, and exactly 25 years since the so-called 'abortion compromise' of 1993, new proposals to further restrict women's access to abortion have come before the Polish parliament.

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Polish women might once again be forced onto the streets to defend their basic rights and just as the erosion of rule of law cannot be accepted, neither should these relentless attacks on women's bodies be tolerated by European policymakers.

The issue has now become one of credibility on questions of fundamental rights for Europe as a whole.

Men's talk?

However, when European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recently discussed the fundamental rights situation with Poland's new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, women's rights were not raised as an issue.

While brave Polish people fight for their basic rights against their government, we as Europeans must get serious about defending democracy and equality between men and women. We need to give our full support to these protesters, and raise this issue with our Polish counterparts at every opportunity.

Despite 100,000 people taking to the streets in 2016 to successfully force the government into a climbdown on moves to outlaw all cases of women terminating their pregnancies, women's rights have come under sustained attack recently as separate measures to inhibit abortions have been introduced.

These moves have culminated in this week's legislative proposal from right-wing fundamentalist group, Pro-prawo do zycia.

The plan would remove one of the few exceptions in the current ban, meaning women would be forced to carry foetuses - with no chances of survival outside the womb - to term. This would effectively outlaw most of the small number of legal abortions currently being carried out in Poland.

Contrast these draconian attempts to change the law with the situation in Poland in the 1960s and 70s when women from European countries with restrictive abortion regimes, such as my own country Sweden, went to Poland for affordable and safe procedures.

More liberal under communism

So, how has Poland come to this point? Well, the fall of the communist state in Poland in 1989 significantly strengthened the position of the Polish Catholic Church.

The church then lobbied heavily to make Polish law more compatible with its teaching, and secured 1993's ban on abortion with three exceptions: pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, when the mother's life or health is in danger, or in case of an irreversible foetal damage.

Some 25 years of this 'abortion compromise' has meant an entire generation of women does not know a world in which they can take free decisions about their bodies and life choices. This was never a "compromise", but a crackdown on women's rights.

Polish women, and Polish people in general it seems, have had enough.

The proposed new law to restrict access is widely opposed, while support for liberalisation is on the increase. However, politicians enthralled to the logic and might of far-right lobby groups, are in denial about the realities and lack of choice facing citizens and Polish women have no allies in parliament.

Even self-proclaimed liberals didn't support an abortion liberalisation proposal, with only one member backing it in a recent vote.

In Poland, as everywhere, abortion happens, legally or otherwise.

It is estimated that up to 150,000 women cross the border to countries such as the Czech Republic to terminate their pregnancies.

Others who cannot afford to travel buy tablets online or resort to carrying out risky procedures at home. Indeed, coat-hangers representing back-street abortions have been a regular feature of abortion rights protests.

These are the only options left for thousands of women and girls and they urgently need international support.

The EU must stop regarding women's rights as secondary rights, as less important than other fundamental rights.

Democracy starts with our bodies and Polish women have shown how powerful they can be in their struggle to decide over their own bodies. The question is, can the old men leading the EU understand that nothing could be more fundamental than the right to decide over one's body?

Malin Bjork is an MEP from the Swedish Left Party, with the European United Left / Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament

Focus

Council of Europe warns on backlash to abortion access

In recent years, proposals for bans and restrictions on voluntary terminations have risen in some EU member states - as well as bills proposing more 'conditions' before women are allowed to access abortions.

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