This week Polish residents took to the streets. Dressed in black, they stood together in protest of a complete ban on access to abortion in their already conservative country.
In Poland’s Communist era of the 1960s and 70s, abortions were easily available and cheap, with other European women even making the trip across the Iron Curtain into Poland for abortions. However, in 1993, as a part of a broader moral backlash against Communism in the mostly Catholic country, some of Europe’s most conservative abortion restrictions took force.
The current abortion laws only allow for action if a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, if the mother’s life is at risk, or if the fetus is gravely ill, but is restrictive in every other case. [In practice, however, many doctors are conscientious objectors and refuse to perform even legal abortions. Polish women seeking abortions — those who can afford it — typically get them in Germany or other neighboring countries, or order abortion pills online]
Two weeks ago, members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) voted to consider a proposal which would essentially criminalize all abortions and create criminal punishment for doctors and women. These new laws would hold that the only allowable case in which a doctor could intervene would be if a woman were dying and required an emergency intervention to save her life.
The new proposal also called for prison terms of up to five years for women who sought abortions, and prison terms for doctors whose actions could result in abortions. With abortion already illegal in most cases, women were frightened that a proposal like this could cause doctors to withhold prenatal tests and that women who suffered miscarriages might fall under criminal suspicion.
On Monday, October 3rd, tens of thousands of Polish residents, clad in black, went on strike, holding demonstrations around the country. Over 30,000 people protested in Warsaw alone. And they were heard: Thursday’s decision by the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, was a complete reversal as lawmakers voted 352-58 to reject the proposal. A proposal the majority had supported just two weeks earlier.
But this hard won victory merely maintains the status quo. Although much can be said for the activism and engagement of the Polish people, this is a win for the conservatives with regard to the framing of abortion laws within the country. It shouldn’t feel like a win when the people of Poland are forced to live under the some of the most restrictive laws in Europe and denied access to safe healthcare and reproductive choice. As we celebrate what the protesters of Poland accomplished this week, we should not lose sight of the fact that this was a victory in voice, not law.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.