Trigger Warning: Abortion
On Friday 23rd March, tens of thousands of people across Poland marched in protest of the abortion law reform proposal that would further restrict Poland’s already restrictive legislation.
An estimated 55,000 people, dressed in black, marched in Warsaw alone, although the Polish police downplayed the size of the protest and gave a more conservative figure of 20,000. Protesters carried placards reading ‘Human Being Not an Incubator’, ‘My Body, My Choice’ and the protest hashtag ‘#CzarnyPiątek’ (meaning ‘Black Friday’), chanting “freedom of choice instead of terror”. This is not the first time that Polish people have taken to the streets to protect their abortion rights; in October 2016, a proposed near-ban on abortion was rejected after around 100,000 people joined the ‘Black Monday’ protests.
Poland currently has one of the toughest abortion laws in Europe, where abortion is only legal to save the life of the pregnant person, where their health is seriously at risk, where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or where the foetus has a congenital disorder. Poland’s far-right government, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), has been supported by the Catholic church in its repeated attempts to ban abortion, and the current ‘Stop Abortion’ draft bill seeks to ban abortion on the ground of congenital disorders, which make up around 95% of the legal abortions carried out in Poland.
Elsewhere in Europe, Ireland’s Repeal the Eighth referendum has provoked a greater awareness of the harm caused by restrictive abortion laws. Poland’s abortion law is similar, but currently less restrictive, than that of Ireland, as the Eighth Amendment equates the life of the foetus to the life of the pregnant person and therefore only allows abortion where there is a risk to the pregnant person’s life. In Poland, there is no criminal charge for terminating your own pregnancy, whereas Ireland imposes a maximum 14-year sentence. In Northern Ireland, the criminal offence for abortion is even more severe, imposing a maximum life sentence, and abortion is only legal where there is a risk to the life or a serious risk to the long-term health of the pregnant person.
“There will always be governments wanting to restrict bodily autonomy, and advocates of choice must always be there to stop them.”
While Poland’s abortion law is therefore marginally less restrictive, in practice there are barriers to abortion created by the stigma attached to it where doctors often refuse to perform abortions on moral grounds. Poland has faced challenges before the European Court of Human Rights on a number of occasions where pregnant people who should have been entitled to a legal abortion were prevented from accessing one. This includes cases where a woman was refused an abortion on the health ground and went almost blind after giving birth, where a young rape victim was harassed by doctors when she attempted to access abortion services, and where genetic tests were withheld from a pregnant woman who feared her child may inherit a genetic condition. Violations of human rights were found in all three cases.
The effect of this is that a pregnant person requiring an abortion must do so either illegally or by travelling abroad, as is the case in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In terms of illegal abortions, it is estimated that there are up to 150,000 per year in Poland, compared with just 1000 legal terminations. Illegal abortion is often unsafe, and people will be unwilling to seek medical aftercare out of fear of prosecution, even where something goes wrong. The alternative is to travel to Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK, or another of the nearby countries for a safe, legal, abortion. However, this requires time and money, making it an often-inaccessible option.
There is an identifiable trajectory towards more liberal abortion laws worldwide, with abortion on request up to 12-weeks’ gestation being the norm in a lot of European countries including Germany and Denmark and the full decriminalisation of abortion in four Australian states. If the Irish referendum returns a vote in favour of repeal, the country is likely to pass abortion on request up to 12-weeks’ gestation, and the Isle of Man, which currently only allows abortion on similar grounds to Poland, is proposing abortion on request up to 14 weeks. Yet, the Polish government is attempting to take the law backwards for the second time in just two years, which teaches us the important lesson that reproductive rights will always be at risk. We can see this in the UK, with the repeated, though unsuccessful, attempts of MPs to shorten the UK time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12 weeks and the reluctance of the government to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
It is key that we continue to fight for safe, legal, and equal access to abortion. Activism plays a significant role in safeguarding reproductive rights, through working to liberalise the law and then in protecting it. Collective action caused the failure of the Polish abortion ban in 2016, and the Irish referendum was won by pro-choice activists. There will always be governments wanting to restrict bodily autonomy, and advocates of choice must always be there to stop them.