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24th Jul 2021

Polish court effectively bans legal abortions

  • Women demonstrating against the previous attempt in 2016 to restriction abortions in Poland (Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski)

The Polish constitutional tribunal on Thursday (22 October) ruled that abortions for foetal abnormalities violate the constitution - effectively imposing a near-total ban on legal abortions in the country.

Poland already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, allowing the termination of the pregnancy only in cases of foetal defects, a threat to the woman's health, or in the case of incest or rape.

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In effect, the majority of legal abortions, 1,074 of 1,100 performed last year, had been as a result of foetal malformations.

Banning those leads to an almost total halt to legal abortions in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, where women's rights have been in the crosshairs of the conservative government's drive to defend what it sees as the country's traditional, religious character.

Poland's top court cited protection of human dignity of the unborn child in its reasoning, saying terminating a pregnancy based on the health of the foetus is discrimination.

The case came before the court after a group of right-wing lawmakers asked the tribunal to check the 1993 abortion law's compatibility with the constitution.

The human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe said the ruling marked a "sad day for women's rights".

"Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights," Dunja Mijatovic said, adding that it will lead to women seeking abortions underground and abroad.

The conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had previously tried to restrict abortion laws in 2016, but had been met with massive protests.

An opinion poll published late last year showed fewer than 15 percent of Polish citizens back a tightening of abortion rules, Reuters reported.

Critics say the PiS government used the tribunal - where the majority of members had been appointed by PiS - to do what it could not do via legislation, and also took advantage of the pandemic when people cannot gather in mass protests.

"The tribunal's ruling is clearly political and far from legitimate. […] The PiS government have unlawfully stuffed the courts, including the constitutional tribunal precisely so they can carry out damaging policies with impunity," Green MEP Sylwia Spurek said.

"This decision will only further strip Polish women of their rights and endanger their health, mostly affecting the lives of low-income women," she added.

'Barbaric'

The leader of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Iratxe Garcia called the new restrictions "barbaric".

"I am speechless. In today's Poland, an EU member state in the 21st century, the lives and health of Polish women are subordinated to a purely political calculation and ideological motivation," she said in a statement.

She added, that as a consequence, "even more women may be pushed to undergo illegal, unsafe and life-threatening abortions".

The Spanish MEP also called the way the decision was made, through the court, "shocking".

The EU has been criticising Warsaw for years for infringing on judicial independence, and Poland is under EU scrutiny for breaching the rule of law principle.

"Today Polish women are being direct victims of the absence of the rule of law," Garcia said, adding that "it is not a coincidence" that the decision was take now, as Covid-19 restrictions prevent demonstrations.

During the summer, the Polish government also said it would pull out of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The tribunal is now also examining if the convention is in line with the constitution.

Warsaw has also begun a push to gather support in the region for replacing the Istanbul Convention with another document backing the concept of "traditional family".

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