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Poland: Abortion bans are a huge failure to women’s rights

Abortions have been ruled unconstitutional by a top court in Poland. This reverses existing laws which normally permit abortions due to foetal defects, and now only cases of rape, incest or threats to the mother’s health will be permissable. These instances only account for 2% of abortions, whereas the now illegal termination due to foetal defects accounted for 98%.

After the court ruling on 23 October, hundreds of people took to the streets of Warsaw to protest the almost complete ban on abortions. They were met by riot police who used pepper spray against the protesters.

Abortions due to foetal defects were legalised in Poland in 1993. The call to ban abortions was voiced by MP’s from the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and other right-wing groups, who argued that the 1993 law infringed on the constitutional principles of human dignity and the protection of human life. 

The verdict which ruled against keeping the 1993 law intact is final and cannot be appealed, meaning Poland is now one of only  two EU countries that limit abortions so severley, the other being Malta.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic tweeted: 

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates #HumanRights…this is a sad day for #WomensRights”.

She also pointed out that the ruling will likely increase underground or abroad abortions for those who can afford it, but even greater ordeal for others. Currently, there are just under 2,000 legal abortions in Poland a year, but women’s rights group estimate up to 200,000 procedures take place abroad or illegally. This is in part due to a stigma surrounding the issue as Poland is a largely Catholic country, where even women who qualify for legal abortions face challenges. 

Commentators such as Małgorzata Szulecka, a lawyer for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights fear that the ban will 

“lead to inhuman treatment of women” 

now that there is almost complete restriction on legal procedures.

Global trends

Despite public outrage, Poland’s decision is part of a worldwide trend of tightening abortion laws. The US just signed an anti-abortion declaration with around 30 other governments, titled the “Geneva Consensus Declaration” (GCD). The GCD calls on states to promote women’s rights and health, yet does not include access to abortion within this. It is said to be part of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ambition to take both domestic and foreign policy in a more conservative direction ahead of the upcoming Presidential election, to retain a conservative support base. 

Poland is one of the signatories of the GCD, as well as Brazil, Hungary, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Sudan and Libya. Pompeo stated in a virtual signing ceremony held on Thursday that Trump has “mounted an unprecedented defense of the unborn abroad”. 

The language used in the GCD promotes “family values as foundational to society”, also commonly used in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, to exclude abortions from reproductive healthcare and remove women’s right to choose.

Many of the signatories are amongst the 20 worst countries to be a woman in as ranked by the Women, Peace and Security Index. It comes as a new UN study concluded that despite progress in women’s lives in regards to education, early marriage, childbearing and maternal mortality, 

“women are far from having an equal voice to men”. 

Stated by Liu Zhenmin, chief of the UN Economic and Social Affairs Department, 

“in every region of the world, women are still subject to various forms of violence and harmful practices”.

Mr Liu called on countries to “accelerate efforts” in empowering women and girls, but the GDC works against this. Currently, 39 countries prohibit abortion altogether or only allow it under circumstances where the woman’s life is at risk, affecting the right to abortion of 360 million women worldwide.

Women’s rights campaign groups and human rights groups will continue to push back and fight against decisions to restrict abortion. Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch voiced their opposition and stated their intention to send independent monitors to the court in Poland. 

Campaign groups and public backlash are vital to ensure that other countries do not follow Poland’s path, and that the right to choose is given freely to women.


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