Why Poland’s abortion ruling should have feminists worldwide concerned

Photo by Zuza Gałczyńska

University of Bath academic explains why Poland has taken to the streets in its largest protests since 1989, and what it means for women worldwide. 

Up to 100,000 people have taken to the streets in recent weeks, protesting against the latest tightening of abortion laws in Poland, a country which already had some of the toughest legislation in Europe. Dr. Sophie Whiting, senior lecturer in politics, told Bath Time, “this ruling is the latest attack on women’s rights by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS).” 

Under the new law, terminations will only be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or for the protection of the mother’s life, thereby outlawing the previous criterion of severe foetal defect which accounted for 98% of Poland’s 1,100 legal abortions in 2019

However, this number only tells a small fraction of the real story. Women’s groups estimate that the true number of abortions carried out either illegally in Poland, or by travelling abroad, is up to 200,000. It is therefore a vast majority of Polish women seeking an abortion who choose to travel abroad, which was made almost impossible during the first lockdown in spring

The tribunal president declaring the latest ruling justified the ban on the grounds that the abortion of foetuses with severe health complications violated the Polish Constitution’s promise to guarantee the protection of human life, and is therefore “a directly forbidden form of discrimination.” 

Meanwhile, opponents have argued that this legislation puts women at great physical and mental risk, by forcing them to continue a pregnancy where the baby is unlikely to survive birth. 

University of Bath academic, Dr. Sophie Whiting, also reminds us, “we know that restricting women’s reproductive rights in law does not stop abortions happening, but forces women to travel abroad or seek unsafe abortions”. This argument is supported by data from the Guttmacher Institute, which has found that the number of abortions performed for women in whose country it is illegal is comparable to countries where the procedure is legal. 

Within the EU, only Malta has stricter abortion laws, where it is banned outright. In a very thinly veiled tweet, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen commented on the situation in Poland: 

The near-total ban has sparked the largest protests in the country since the fall of communism in 1989. Despite coronavirus restrictions, men and women, young and old, marched across the country shouting slogans such as “this is war”, and accusing authorities of having “blood on their hands”. 

In the very same week the deeply conservative and pro-life campaigner Amy Coney Barrett took her seat on the US Supreme Court, following the death of the liberal and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It’s a deeply troubling time for pro-choice campaigners around the world, as Dr. Whiting reminds us: “this demonstrates how hard-fought progress on women’s rights can easily be reversed”.  

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