Polish government performs U-turn on abortion ban after Black Monday protests

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Moya Crockett
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Thousands of women marched through the streets of Poland earlier this week, protesting proposals for a total ban on abortions. Dubbed ‘Black Monday’, the protests saw the women don black clothes as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights, and were echoed in solidarity marches in other European cities including London, Berlin and Paris.

As a result of the protests, the Polish government has quickly backtracked – and now says that the ban will not be implemented.

Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin was quoted as saying that the nationwide pro-choice marches “gave us food for thought, and certainly taught us humility”.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo was also at pains to distance her government from the bill. Speaking at a news conference, she told reporters: “I want to state very clearly that the PiS [Law and Justice] government is not working on any legislation changing the rules on abortion in Poland.” 

Although the ruling right-wing PiS party is socially conservative, it did not draft the anti-abortion proposals. Rather, the bill came from a citizens’ initiative backed by the Catholic Church, which gathered some 450,000 signatures.

Deputy PM Gowin said that the current abortion exceptions will remain.

Speaking on the state-run Radio Koszalin in northern Poland, he said: “I want to reassure those who fear that in Poland abortion will be completely prohibited. A total ban certainly won't get through. Abortion will certainly not be banned when the woman is the victim of rape or if her life or her health is in danger.”

Gowin and Szydlo’s comments represent a softening of the government’s stance. Previously, Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, had dismissed the significance of the Black Monday protests, telling Associated Press: “We expect serious debate on questions of life, death and birth. We do not expect happenings, dressing in costumes and creating artificial problems.”

Poland, a largely Catholic nation, already has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, with terminations banned under most circumstances. Currently, abortions are only allowed if the life of the foetus is under threat, there is a grave threat to the health of the mother, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest – and this must be confirmed by a prosecutor.

All abortions would become criminalised if the proposed ban on terminations were enacted, with women punishable with up to five years in prison. Any doctor who carried out or assisted an abortion would also be liable for time in prison. 

Critics of the proposed ban argued that if it were introduced, women who suffered a miscarriage would also be likely to be investigated on suspicion of having terminated the pregnancy deliberately.

And a recent Ipsos opinion poll suggests that the vast majority of Poles do not want tighter abortion legislation. Almost half said that the current law should remain unchanged, while over a third said that safe, legal terminations should be more easily accessible. Only 11% thought that restrictions should be made tougher.

Research indicates that banning abortion does not stop the practice – it simply forces women to turn to more dangerous methods. According to the World Health Organization, about 22 million unsafe abortions are performed every year, and even under existing laws, Poland sees far more illegal abortions than legal ones. Around 10,000 and 150,000 illegal terminations are estimated to take place every year, compared to between 1,000 and 2,000 legal abortions, with many women crossing the border to Germany or Slovakia instead.

Images: Rex Features