Poland lawmakers take steps towards liberalising abortion laws

Under existing laws, abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest or a danger to a woman’s health or life.

People take part in the 'Women's Strike' protest against the tightening of the abortion law during the International Women's Day in Warsaw
People take part in a protest against the tightening of abortion laws in Warsaw [File: Mateusz Marek/ EPA-EFE]

Polish lawmakers have voted to continue work on proposals to lift a near total ban on abortion, a divisive issue in the traditionally Roman Catholic country, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On Friday, members of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, voted to work on four bills and create a commission to work on them.

Two of the bills propose legalising abortion through the 12th week of pregnancy in line with European norms. One proposes decriminalising giving assistance to a woman who terminates a pregnancy, currently a crime punishable by three years in prison. And a fourth plan would keep a ban in most cases but allow abortions in cases of fetal defects – a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling.

Under the country’s existing laws, abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest or a danger to a woman’s health or life.

Liberalising access to abortion has been a central campaign promise of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who emerged victorious in elections in October that saw a high turnout partly due to women’s rights issues.

“We keep our word! The parliament will proceed with all projects on the right to abortion,” Tusk said on social media after Friday’s vote.

Reacting to the news, Miko Czerwinski, the head of campaigns at Amnesty International Poland, said: “By approving these four amendments, Poland’s parliament has taken a significant step towards ending Poland’s cruel and draconian restrictions on access to abortion, which have had a devastating impact on the lives and health of so many people.”

“As these amendments go through to the next voting stage, it is crucial that politicians listen to the voices of civil society and those people directly affected by the near total ban on abortion and bring the law into compliance with international human rights standards,” he added in a statement to journalists.

Decisive issue in parliament

In recent years, authorities in Poland have come under increasing pressure over abortion laws after multiple women with pregnancy complications have died after they were refused abortions.

According to an opinion poll by Ipsos, 35 percent of Poles are in favour of allowing abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy while 14 percent said they would keep the current rules.

Twenty-three percent want a referendum on liberalising abortion laws, a solution backed by the centre-right Third Way party but strongly criticised by women’s rights campaigners.

Even if parliament approves the reforms, President Andrzej Duda, a conservative Catholic ally of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party, is unlikely to sign them into law.

Moreover, the coalition government – comprising Tusk’s Civic Coalition and its junior partners, Third Way and Left – does not have the required three-fifths majority to overturn a presidential veto.

The four bills will now be debated by the special parliamentary commission. It is not clear how long the work may take, but some lawmakers have suggested it could be until a new president is elected next year.

The vote in Poland followed the European Parliament adopting a resolution on Thursday demanding the inclusion of the right to abortion in the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

EU lawmakers called on Poland and Malta, the two countries with the toughest limitations on abortion, to lift restrictions.

Source: News Agencies