Poland sees 2nd night of protests as near-total abortion ban takes effect

A near-total ban on abortion has taken effect in Poland and triggered a new round of countrywide protests three months after a top court ruled that the abortion of congenitally damaged fetuses is unconstitutional.

Protesters demanding full liberalization of abortion law, resignation of government

Demonstrations across Poland protest new abortion restrictions

1 year ago
Duration 0:46
Thousands of people in Poland took to the streets after a new, highly restrictive abortion law came into effect.

A near-total ban on abortion has taken effect in Poland and triggered a new round of countrywide protests three months after the constitutional court ruled that the abortion of congenitally damaged fetuses is unconstitutional.

Led by a women's rights group, Women's Strike, people poured onto the streets of Warsaw, where they demonstrated in front of the court and in other cities and towns on Thursday for the second evening in a row.

In Warsaw, the atmosphere was tense, and police detained three people who they said "had invaded the territory of the Constitutional Tribunal."

Women's Strike insisted that a total five people had been detained and said one of them was Klementyna Suchanow, one of the leaders of the movement.

Protesters insisted that women should have the right to decide about their own bodies. One banner in Rzeszow stated that an "abortion ban is discrimination against the poorest," because poorer women will not be able to travel abroad for abortions, as Polish women who can afford to already do.

"I wanted to have more children; you killed this desire," read a banner held by one woman among the demonstrators in Warsaw.

Some Polish women said that if they are denied the right to terminate pregnancies in cases of serious fetal deformaties, they would not try to have children at all.

Poland's top human rights official denounced the further restriction of what was already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, calling it a tragedy for women.

"The state wants to further limit their rights, risk their lives and condemn them to torture," said Adam Bodnar, the human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, whose role is independent from the Polish government. "This offensive is opposed by civil society."

The only remaining legal justifications for abortion under Polish law are if the woman's life or health is at risk, or if a pregnancy results from a crime like rape or incest. To date, about 98 per cent of all legal abortions in the country — of which there were 1,110 in 2019 — were performed on the grounds of fetal malformations.

Poland's constitutional court on Wednesday issued a justification of a controversial October ruling that bans abortions in cases of fetuses with congenital defects, even ones so severe that there is no chance of survival upon birth.

The government then published the court's ruling in a government journal. Those steps were the formal prerequisites required for the new law to enter into force.

Reproductive rights activists say many hospitals had already started cancelling procedures that until Wednesday were theoretically still legal, fearing possible repercussions.

Members of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, which is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, had sought the new restriction. They argued that it was a way to prevent the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome, which have made up a significant share of the legal abortions in Poland.

Women's rights activists consider the new law to be draconian.

'A terrible day for women and girls in Poland'

The protesters are demanding a full liberalization of the abortion law and the resignation of the government, neither of which seem likely in the short term.

In the meantime, women's rights groups are seeking new strategies to help women. The Federation for Women and Family planning says it will seek redress in international courts, arguing that the new law violates prohibitions of cruel treatment and torture. It is also assisting women who want to obtain abortion pills or travel abroad for the procedure.

Some protesters on Wednesday covered their faces with green handkerchiefs, which are the symbol of the abortion rights movement in Argentina. The South American country recently legalized abortion, a historic change in deeply Catholic Latin America.

A constitutional court ruling in Poland in October determined that abortions are only legal in cases of rape and incest, and when the mother's life is in danger. But the decision had not yet been officially published until now, three months after the ruling sparked widespread protests. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Amnesty International, which called Poland's law taking effect "a terrible day for women and girls in Poland," said bans never prevent abortions.

"Instead, they serve only to damage women's health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need and to which they have a right," said Amnesty senior research adviser Esther Major.

Poland's ruling conservatives have long sought to further restrict abortion rights. Past attempts by parliament to do so triggered mass street protests, pressure that led lawmakers to shelve those plans.

In a more than 200-page ruling, the constitutional court argued that allowing abortion when there are congenital defects is unconstitutional, because the Polish constitution protects human life. The constitutional court is made up mostly of Law and Justice appointees who ruled on a motion brought by lawmakers from the party.

The government appears to have calculated that it could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under its political control to do the job during the pandemic. Instead, massive numbers of people have in past months defied pandemic restrictions in order to demonstrate.