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Abortion battle rages on in Poland despite coronavirus lockdown

Battle over abortion laws in Poland
Battle over abortion laws in Poland 01:49

Poland's conservative leaders have come a step closer to their goal of further tightening what are already some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

Abortions are only permitted in Poland in cases of certain fetal abnormalities, rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health. The new legislation, which recently passed a preliminary vote in the lower house of Poland's parliament, would prohibit abortions due to any fatal abnormalities or incurable illnesses of the child. 

The most common reason for abortions in Poland to date is fetal abnormalities or illnesses, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health. Data from the ministry shows that in 2018, 1,050 of the roughly 1,100 abortions performed in Polish clinics were justified due to malformations of the unborn child.

Women's rights activist Marta Lempert told CBS News that, even in legally permitted cases, many Polish women struggle to find doctors who will perform the procedure because it's so stigmatized and heavily regulated in the country.

"We have many cases of women who are entitled to legal abortions but they do it illegally because it's so hard to go through the system and demand legal abortion," she told CBS News.

Women's rights organizations say the real number of abortions carried out in Poland every year is at least 150,000, as tens of thousands of Polish women have the procedure illegally at underground facilities or at home with pills. Many women go to Germany, Slovakia or the Czech Republic to terminate pregnancies.

Supporters of the bill currently making its way through the Polish legislature — including the Catholic Church in Poland — argue that every child, regardless of how severe a disability it may have, should have the right to be born, named, baptized and then buried if they die.

The consequences of the new law would be significant: In addition to banning virtually all abortions in the country, it would imposing prison sentences for women who have the procedure illegally (right now doctors are punished for such procedures, not the women), and lead to possible criminal investigations into miscarriages.

"The choice is simple"

Co-initiator of the new legislation Kaja Godek, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, has framed the debate still raging in Poland's parliament in stark terms: "The choice is simple: Are you for murder or against murder."

The 36-year-old anti-abortion activist wants the procedure banned completely in Poland and has been pushing the bill together with Catholic activists since 2015.

"She had a choice when she was pregnant with a disabled child, and now she wants to take that choice away from other women," argues Lempart.

Polish lawmakers first rejected a similar piece of legislation — after weeks of large public protests — in 2015. Another attempt to tighten the abortion laws followed in 2016, but it was again rejected after thousands of women protested against what Poland's women's rights groups have called "a war on women led by the church." 

Again in 2018 the legislation was tabled, but doomed by public opinion and left to languish in parliamentary committees.

Considering the huge public outcry over the previous attempts, it might come as little surprise that the current bill has evoked significant public anger — but like everywhere else, circumstances are currently far from normal in Poland. 

But even a strict coronavirus lockdown hasn't stopped thousands of people taking to the streets across the country to protest against the legislation. Some held up signs saying, "fight the virus and not with women." The hashtag #pieklokobiet (Women's hell) began trending online weeks before the protests, which Marta Lempart described as "very creative and inventive" for their efforts to abide by social distancing guidelines.

Members of the governing national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) and other factions got the bill through its initial "first reading" in parliament. Now it will be discussed at the committee level before being re-submitted to parliament. President Andrzej Duda, appointed by the ruling conservative party, has already said he will immediately sign anything up to and including a total ban on abortion.

Opponents of the PiS party in parliament have strongly condemned the bill.

"In an extreme situation, a woman must have the right to choose," said Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the presidential candidate of the largest political opposition alliance, the liberal-conservative Citizens' Coalition (PO).

Many critics have accused the government of taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to push legislative changes while scrutiny is minimized by lockdown measures.

Now, the abortion law will either suffer the same fate as its predecessor from 2018 and remain stuck in the committees, or it could can be brought for a final vote and passed. Given the makeup of the parliament, if it comes up for a vote, it is almost guaranteed to pass and reach Duda's desk.

Sex education under fire, too

Another bill is going through parliament at the same time that could create considerable legal obstacles to schools providing sex education. The legislation has also passed a vote after a first reading and will now be debated by parliamentary committees before a final approval vote.

The controversial bill, introduced by a citizens' initiative called "Stop Paedophilia," would allow up to two years imprisonment for propagating child abuse — and up to three years imprisonment for any public sex education.

Under the current wording, the bill would punish anyone who "propagates or praises sexual intercourse or other sexual activities by minors" under the age of 16 in Poland.

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