poland church protest
Protesters disrupt mass to object to abortion ban
01:57 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Abortion Dream Team usually receives about 400 calls a month, from women seeking advice and information. Last week, the Polish advocacy group had 700 in the space of three days, according to team member Justyna Wydrzynska.

Some came from women who had just arrived at hospital to have abortions because of fetal defects – only to be told to go home after Poland’s highest court on October 22 imposed a near-total ban on abortion.

“They are furious and sad and they don’t know what to do,” Wydrzynska told CNN. “They cannot take pills because [their pregnancy is] above 20 weeks so it could be dangerous for them.” The likelihood of a woman taking abortion pills needing a further procedure is far greater after 14 weeks, according to the UK’s National Health Service.

A demonstrator in Warsaw holds flares as hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week to voice their opposition to the tightening of Poland's abortion law.

The women Wydrzynska and her team spoke to may be forced to travel abroad for the procedure, or left to carry a pregnancy to term even if they know the baby will not survive, since providers could be jailed, she said.

However, President Andrzej Duda submitted a draft amendment to the law on Friday, which would legalize abortion in situations where the baby has “lethal defects” and would die soon after birth.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, some dressed as handmaids, took part in the country’s largest demonstrations in decades this week. Some were met by riot police with pepper spray and arrests on the streets, while others stormed churches, and scuffles broke out in parliament.

Friday's protest in Warsaw was the largest Poland has seen in decades as demonstrators wearing face masks and holding placards took to the streets.

Poland’s abortion laws were already restrictive, even before the latest rule change. It is estimated that around 100,000 Polish women travel abroad each year for a termination, according to a statement by United Nations experts.

Of more than 1,110 legal abortions in Polish hospitals in in 2019, approximately 98% were carried out because of fetal defects, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health cited by the Polish Press Agency. The decision to declare terminations unconstitutional in these cases means it will be virtually impossible to obtain an abortion in the country, except in cases of rape, incest or where there is a provable threat to the woman’s life.

The lawmakers proposing the change argued that allowing abortion in cases of fetal defects was discrimination and violated the unborn child’s right to life.

“There is a lot of rage and frustration,” Urszula Grycuk, from Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, told CNN of the reaction in Poland.

“Even wanting to get pregnant in this country, women would be afraid they would not get services like prenatal testing, for example. Many may go abroad to obtain professional pregnancy care,” she added.

Grycuk, the nongovernmental organization’s (NGO’s) international advocacy coordinator, said she and others do not recognize the legitimacy of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. The European Commission has reported concerns over the tribunal’s independence and legitimacy, partly because of how judges are selected.

Not everyone agrees. “I think that the decision of Polish constitution is a major step towards full realization of human rights in our country,” Karolina Pawlowska, director of the Center of International Law at Poland’s Ordo Iuris Institute and a PhD student at the University of Warsaw, told CNN.

“It’s about fetal defects and syndromes like Down syndrome, Turner syndrome or other conditions that are seen as a defect,” she added. “We of course know that many people with Down syndrome, that many people that are disabled, can live a life of satisfaction.”

‘A time for deep concern’

Poland is the only European Union member state – barring Malta – to have such harsh laws. In Malta, abortion is completely banned, even when a woman’s life is at risk.

But Poland’s move to strip away reproductive rights is one of a series of blows to abortion rights in western countries – including the United States and Slovakia – in recent weeks. While Slovakia’s attempt to restrict abortion access was voted down in Parliament, each is an example of regular attempts in modern democracies to make abortion harder to access, despite campaigners saying it needs to be made easier.

In many cases, attempts to roll back abortion rights are being made where there have also been rollbacks on democracy, civil society and human rights.

Last week saw the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration, which emphasizes the “strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society” and challenges the right to an abortion.

The document, signed by 30 countries including Poland and Belarus, states that it aims “to express the essential priority of protecting the right to life.”

It was co-sponsored by a group of largely repressive governments: Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Uganda, Hungary – and the United States.

Abortion is more contentious in the US than in Europe. While Roe v. Wade settled the question of whether a woman can legally have one almost 50 years ago, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court on Monday was met with dismay by abortion rights supporters who fear she’ll overturn it.

In a 2013 essay about how principles of “stare decisis” might impact Roe v. Wade, Barrett, then a professor at Notre Dame University, pointed to the strength of the doctrine but suggested room for some cases to be overturned. “Court watchers,” she wrote, “embrace the possibility of overruling, even if they may want it to be the exception rather than the rule.”

She has previously signed a “right to life ad” that called for the protection of unborn children; suggested access to abortion could be limited; and in 2013 spoke “to her own conviction that life begins at conception” during a professorial talk, according to Notre Dame Magazine.

“This is a time for extraordinarily deep concern about the right to abortion in the United States,” Julie Rikelman, senior director of US litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told CNN.

“At every level of the Federal Court, we now have judges and justices who do not support the right to abortion and so the basic federal constitutional right is in jeopardy in a way that it hasn’t been for decades,” said Rikelman.

She said the right to abortion was also in “critical danger” at a state level, with 468 restrictions enacted since the start of 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization focused on reproductive rights.

That will disproportionately affect poor women, who are more likely to need abortions and to struggle with the expense of the procedure and traveling to a different state, Rikelman said.

“We already know there are 21 states that would ban abortion outright if given the opportunity to do so,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present, told CNN when asked what might happen if Roe v Wade is overturned.

Ziegler said recent restrictions on abortion, seen in at least nine states, have a “chilling effect” on women who want a termination but are afraid of the consequences.

Restrictions across Europe

Central and Eastern Europe in particular have, seen multiple attempts to reduce women’s legal entitlements to abortion or to introduce new barriers.

Slovakia’s parliament earlier this month voted against proposed restrictions that would have required women to wait 96 hours before an abortion, banned clinics from “advertising” abortion services, and required women to justify their reasons for seeking an abortion.

It was one of several bills proposing restrictions on reproductive rights that were rejected in Slovakia’s parliament in 2019 and 2020.