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A protester holds up a coathanger at a demonstration against Poland's proposed near-total abortion ban.

A demonstrator holds up a coathanger at a rally against Poland's proposed near-total ban on abortion. (Photo: Razem/Facebook)

Protesters Decry Poland's Proposed Near-Total Ban on Abortion

Poland's right-wing parliament moved forward with legislation that would sentence women and doctors to years in prison for terminating a pregnancy

Nika Knight Beauchamp

Poland's ruling right-wing party on Friday pushed forward with a nearly complete ban on abortion, and women around the country and in cities across Europe rose up this weekend to condemn the legislation.

The new anti-abortion bill "proposes to permit abortion only if the pregnancy threatens the mother's life," according to the Telegraph, forcing victims of rape or incest to carry those pregnancies to term. "Women who have terminations could be jailed for between three months and five years, while practitioners of illegal abortions could also face five-year sentences, up from two years at present," the newspaper adds.

And because doctors are threatened with prison sentences for performing abortions, they will be reluctant to perform abortions even when the mother's life is indeed threatened, as a doctor argued before parliament earlier this year: "If I have a 32-week pregnant patient with pre-eclampsia, I have to wait for her and her child to start dying before I can take action," explained Professor Romuald Dębski, who is quoted by Amnesty International.

"If there is an ectopic pregnancy and bleeding, I can perform a termination. But if there is no bleeding—no immediate risk to life—I have to wait until she starts dying," Dębski said.

Amnesty International decried the proposed legislation as soon as it was introduced last Tuesday.

"Pregnant at 11, a girl raped by her own father, will have no choice but to give birth. Equally, a woman at high risk of dying in childbirth or of carrying a dead baby, will not be able to seek a termination," the human rights group argued. "This will be the impact of new legislation due to be debated on in the Polish parliament later this week which, if passed, would usher in an almost complete ban on abortion."

Another proposed bill would also "make it illegal to freeze embryos or to fertilize more than one egg at a time, measures aimed at curbing in vitro fertilization—a controversial practice in the largely Catholic country," according to The Krakow Post.

The feminist group Dziewuchy dziewuchom ("Wenches to wenches") organized Sunday's so-called "Black Protests" along with the European feminist coalition Save Women and the leftwing Polish party Razem ("Together"), and thousands across Poland and Europe gathered to condemn the proposed law.

The demonstrators wore all black for the Black Protests, or Czarny Protest, because "black is the color of grief," country director for Amnesty International in Poland Draginja Nadazdin told Buzzfeed.

"This new law isn't democratic, and it doesn't treat women right," a 79-year-old university professor who took part in the protests told The Krakow Post.

"No woman has an abortion because of a whim: she has one because of a crisis," argued Joanna Scheuring-Wieglus, a pro-choice parliamentary member, about the proposed bill. "The world should not be made black and white. This bill fosters hypocrisy upon hypocrisy. Why do so many of you hate women?"

"Abortion is already mostly banned [in Poland]," the BBC writes. "The only exceptions are a severe and irreversible damage to the fetus, a serious threat to the mother's health, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest." The broadcaster continues:

As a result, 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.

In fact, the current law is "more conservative than it appears on paper because so many doctors opt out of providing abortions by claiming to be conscientious objectors," Krystyna Kacpura, executive director of Poland's Federation for Women and Family Planning, wrote in the Guardian. "My organization [...] learns of at least two or three such cases every day. Even more problematic is the fact that some doctors make this objection in their work at public hospitals while continuing to provide abortions at high prices in their private practice."

Indeed, Poland's current abortion laws are already so restrictive that they have been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

"The court found that in three cases—including in the case of a 14 year-old rape victim—unacceptable obstacles to women’s and girls' access to safe and legal abortion breached Poland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights," as Amnesty International observes.

The severely restrictive abortion law is part of a recent sharp turn toward the right in Polish politics, which comes courtesy of the ruling nationalist "Law and Justice" (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) party, which "won the first parliamentary majority for a single party since the democratic transition" in November 2015, as the Guardian wrote earlier this year.

"Since taking office [...] Law and Justice has focused its attention on the pillars of Poland's democracy," the newspaper explained:

Parliament has taken direct control of state media, on the basis that 'public media are ignoring their mission towards the nation.' It has also taken direct control of the appointments of senior civil servants. The head of the prime minister's office has described the removal of state officials as a means to 'eliminate the social pathology' that existed under the previous government headed by Law and Justice's main rivals—adding that 'it will be possible to immediately fire any person for whom the fact or even the suspicion of them having been involved in this pathology is confirmed.'

In December, Law and Justice passed a law designed to paralyze the constitutional tribunal—the country's highest judicial body, which rules on the legality of government actions—by requiring the court to consider its backlog in chronological order, thereby obstructing any judgment of the present government's decisions.

The Polish people have widely protested the party's rule: while Sunday was a day of pro-choice and feminist demonstrations across Poland, Saturday saw tens of thousands gather in Warsaw to condemn the ruling party's court "reforms," which many European observers argue violates Poland's constitution.

Poland is in fact "facing a deadline of late October to reverse its intended constitutional court changes or face sanctions for breaching EU norms on the rule of law and democracy," AFP writes, the PiS' leader has claimed that the European Commission is acting illegally.

Of the country's shift to the right, a 68-year-old former biology teacher who took part in Sunday's protests told The Krakow Post that he "feels frustrated that women in particular are targeted for prosecution by (mostly male) anti-abortion lawmakers, as if the pregnant women 'were all a bunch of Virgin Marys,' and accused PiS of manipulating the public's emotions for political gain." 

The protester "expressed a wish that the members of the young national ultra-right—'these young men with shaved head and Polish eagles on their jackets'—would better learn their history and that doing so would open their minds. About this, however, he confesses, 'I am not an optimist,'" the local newspaper writes.

Women's rights advocates continue to push against the anti-choice legislation on social media under the hashtag .


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