Poland warned against debating abortion while protests banned

As protests are forbidden under lockdown, government accused of trying to pave way for new laws using cover of COVID-19.

Woman hol placard reading "Let''s save women" as she takes part in abortion rights campaigners'' demonstration "Black Protest" in front of the Parliament in Warsaw
In this file photo, a protester holds a placard reading 'Let's save women' as she takes part in an abortion rights campaigners' demonstration in front of the parliament in Warsaw on October 1, 2016 [Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

International human rights groups have accused the Polish government of taking advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to debate new limits on abortion and sexual education.

The ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party had abandoned its previous attempts to tighten abortion rules following large public protests.

Now, several citizens’ initiatives are set for a first reading on parliament’s agenda for Wednesday and Thursday, including one that could criminalise sexual education activities and another on new rules limiting access to abortion.

“The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to push through dangerous legislation,” Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on Tuesday.

“The Polish government’s focus during the pandemic should be to protect people’s health and rights, not diminish them.”

As demonstrations are impossible during the coronavirus lockdown, activists plan to hold a virtual protest on social media.

Amnesty International also criticised the government’s planned debate, saying an abortion ban and regressive sexuality education laws “must not be rushed through under cover of COVID-19”.

“Attempting to pass these recklessly retrogressive laws at any time would be shameful, but to rush them through under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis is unconscionable,” said Draginja Nadazdin, director of Amnesty International Poland.

“These laws would fuel fear and ignorance, and further restrict access to abortion for women in a country whose abortion law is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.

“They would not only endanger the health and lives of women and girls but also obstruct young people’s access to the information that they need for healthy sexual relationships.”

Staunchly Catholic Poland has some of the toughest abortion rules in Europe, with the procedure allowed only in the case of some foetal abnormalities, rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health.

The PiS has also spoken out against sexual education, arguing attempts to teach young people about sexual orientation and gay rights could threaten Polish culture and should be blocked wherever possible.

The “Stop Abortion” project, which proposes banning abortion when prenatal tests show serious, irreversible damage to the foetus, was first submitted to parliament in 2018.

“I believe that killing disabled children is simply murder. If legislation on this will cross my desk, I will certainly sign it into law,” Poland‘s President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, told Polish Catholic news outlet Niedziela earlier this month when asked about the abortion restrictions project.

Poland‘s constitution allows citizens to submit legislative proposals if they can gather 100,000 signatures.

The proposals on abortion and sexual education were submitted to the parliament during the last term and must be discussed by May, according to parliamentary rules.

It is unclear if restrictions on public gatherings will be lifted by May.

Polish government officials said on Tuesday that they plan to relax some of the coronavirus limits, likely for shops first, on April 19. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies