Poland's tussle over abortion ban

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A rally in Warsaw during a nationwide "Black Monday" protest on 3 OctoberImage source, AFP
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The socially-conservative government changed its position after a nationwide "Black Monday" protest on 3 October

The touchstone issue of abortion has again fought its way to the centre of Polish politics.

In this staunchly Catholic nation, a citizens' initiative calling for an almost complete ban drew 450,000 signatures and looked close to being passed, before some 100,000 Poles, most of them women, took to the streets in protest.

The socially-conservative government distanced itself from the ban and MPs then voted overwhelmingly against it.

What's the law in Poland now?

Abortion is already mostly banned. The only exceptions are a severe and irreversible damage to the foetus, a serious threat to the mother's health, or when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Even by conservative estimates there are far more illegal abortions than legal ones in Poland - between 10,000 and 150,000, compared to about 1,000 or 2,000 legal terminations.

Access to contraception has also been tightened. The only over-the-counter contraception now available is the condom.

What would have changed under the proposed ban?

Anti-abortion activists, led mainly by one group called Stop Abortion, demanded what is widely regarded in Poland as a total ban, even in cases of rape and incest. The only exception would have been where the mother's life was in danger.

Image source, AP
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Supporters of an abortion ban in Poland have called the practice "butchery"

Under the proposals, abortion was to be punishable with a five-year prison term. Doctors in Poland already risk punishment if they are found to have carried out an illegal termination, but under the bill all doctors performing abortions would have been criminalised.

The changes would have aligned Poland with two other European states, Malta and Vatican City.

Stop Abortion argues that human life starts at conception and should be protected from that moment.

Who supported the changes?

The government never officially backed the citizens' initiative but initially figures such as Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and the deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki indicated their personal support. And many MPs in the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party backed the bill when it first went before parliament last month.

The Catholic Church had also backed the bill but changed its stance ahead of the 6 October vote in parliament, saying it could not support women being jailed for having an abortion.

Conservative Catholic weekly Gosc Niedzielny quoted Joanna Banasiuk, a university lawyer and activist, telling parliament that abortion was the "butchering of innocent children, hell for women and moral bankruptcy for men".

In one south-eastern region, Podkarpackie, where the ruling PiS and the Catholic Church enjoy unusually high support, hospitals and doctors signed a "declaration of conscience" and refused to carry out any abortions, in effect removing legal abortion locally as an option.

When parliament (the Sejm) began to debate the motion there were demonstrations for and against the proposals outside the building in Warsaw. The bill was sent to a committee for further consideration.

What role does the Catholic Church play?

The influence of the church is indirect but significant. No parliamentary party has the word "Catholic" or "Christian" in its name, but 87% of the nation declare to be Roman Catholic.

If you want to find the roots of the Polish conscience you need to look in the Vatican, say some. And although the PiS does not follow Church teachings blindly, a significant section of its supporters are religious.

Image source, AFP
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Pro-choice activists used coat-hangers to symbolise the dangers of driving abortion underground

Others argue that the Church's influence on the nation is waning. Attendance at Sunday mass has dropped below 40%. More Poles are willing, these days, to challenge the moral leadership of the Church.

Opinion polls suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Poles wanted no change to the existing abortion laws.

Did women stop the abortion ban?

When an estimated 100,000 people, most of them women, turned out in nationwide rallies in Poland on 3 October, the government took notice.

Image source, Reuters
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Mass protests were held in cities across Poland on Monday against the citizens' bill

They bore placards that read "No women, no kraj", a reference to a Bob Marley song but with a Polish word that changed the meaning to "No women, no country".

The prime minister quickly distanced herself from the bill and then Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin gave a radio interview, saying the protests had given "food for thought and certainly taught us humility".

Smaller rallies took place in several other European cities.

Who backed the protests?

The main group, Save the Women, argues that the current law is already extremely restrictive. It is supported by Poland's main opposition party, Nowoczesna (Modern), which complains current regulations are "medieval", drive abortion underground and deny pregnant women choice - except for more affluent women, who are able to afford to go abroad for terminations.

Coat-hangers representing back-street abortions have been a regular feature of protests; recent web-based protests have seen women posting pictures of themselves wearing black mourning clothes, symbolising the death of choice and their own futures.

Save the Women's Barbara Nowacka said that to reduce the number of illegal abortions the state had to introduce "sex education, state-funded contraception... and [better] access to doctors as well as the right to abortion".

The pro-choice movement also garnered enough signatures (about 250,000) to see their proposals debated by parliament - but it immediately struck the motion out.

So what happens next?

The campaign for a near-total ban appears to have run out of steam.

What is now most likely is that a 23-year-old compromise will remain in place that only allows abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the health of the mother or foetus is seriously endangered.

What's the picture on abortion elsewhere in Europe?

European countries are among the world's most pro-choice when it comes to abortion.

There are exceptions: Malta and Vatican City are among six countries worldwide where abortion is banned outright under law. There are severe restrictions in Ireland, Northern Ireland (where the law differs from the rest of the UK), San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra.