How Polish women are resisting the latest attempt to ban abortion

“Support for women came thick and fast both domestically and further afield, with opposition to the judgement coming from groups not typically associated with women’s rights, such as farmers and miners.” European Studies graduate Charlotte Killeen outlines the national and Europe-wide reactions to Poland’s near-total ban on abortion.

Polish abortion ban protest

Sylwia Spurek

'My body, my choice'

Charlotte Killeen

Protests have taken place in cities and towns across Poland following a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal that allowing abortion in cases of foetal abnormalities is unconstitutional. 

Even before the ruling, Poland’s policy of allowing abortion only in cases of rape or incest, threat to the life or health of the woman and foetal abnormalities was one of the most restrictive in the EU, with only Malta’s total ban going further. It is the latest setback for the women’s rights movement in Poland, coming on the heels of a government announcement in July that it intends to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

Poland’s ruling party, PiS (Law and Justice), had attempted to place a total ban on abortion through the Polish Parliament in 2016 but failed following the large-scale ‘black protests’ across Poland. Despite this apparent success for Polish women, co-chair of the Polish Greens Małgorzata Tracz expressed concerns that a ‘new compromise’ would be reached whereby abortion would no longer be permitted in cases of foetal abnormality. Sadly for the women of Poland, her fears have now been realised by a court stuffed with government allies.

Although not a total ban, as abortions for malformation of the foetus made up nearly 98 per cent of the 1,100 abortions carried out in Poland last year, it can be considered one in effect. Women’s groups estimate that up to 200,000 Polish women go abroad each year to have an abortion, mostly to Czechia or Germany, or have one illegally in Poland. As Dr Sylwia Spurek, a Greens EFA MEP and Vice Chair of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee in the European Parliament, recognised, it is mostly low-income women without the financial means to travel abroad who will be most greatly impacted. Given the current pandemic and the possibility of greater travel restrictions, however, the option of a safe abortion abroad may be cut off even for women who can afford one.

Support for women came thick and fast both domestically and further afield, with opposition to the judgement coming from groups not typically associated with women’s rights, such as farmers and miners. The Polish Greens, who are in favour of significantly liberalising abortion access, have been taking part in protests as well as using their position in Parliament to speak out against the ruling and raise awareness of police aggression against protestors.

 On a European level, solidarity protests drawing up to 2,000 people have taken place outside Polish embassies in London, Stockholm and other cities. Politically, various MEPs from the Socialists and Democrats group, including its leadership, have condemned the ruling. Members of the Greens-EFA group have been particularly vocal and demonstrative in their support, with Vice-Chair Terry Reintke taking part in the cross-party Handmaid’s Tale-style protest and specifically calling on the German Council Presidency and Commission to act as Poland yet again displayed its disregard for the rule of law. This line of attack is supported by other Green MEPs. 

Dr Spurek claims that court packing by PiS means the Tribunal’s decision cannot be considered lawful or legitimate as the rule of law has been flouted. She called on both the Council and Commission, which have so far both appeared rather reticent to act, to hold Poland to account for its rule-of-law violations. As abortion doesn’t fall into any of the competences of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, they have consistently held that states have no obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights to allow abortion in any circumstances, challenging the decision on the more indirect rule-of-law basis may prove most fruitful for European Greens.

Charlotte Killeen is a graduate of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam with a major in European Law