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Poland's parliament backs easing of abortion laws, among the strictest in Europe

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Lawmakers in Poland have voted in favor of measures to ease the country's near-total ban on abortion, setting the stage for a potential clash over women's rights with the country's conservative president. With their vote on Friday, parliamentarians endorsed several proposals to relax the abortion restrictions, including one from newly elected Prime Minister Donald Tusk's party to decriminalize abortions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

The proposals, however, are likely to face opposition from President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the staunchly conservative Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish initials PiS. 

Poland's current abortion law, introduced in 2020 by a PiS-backed court, is widely regarded as one of the strictest in Europe. It allows for abortions only in very limited circumstances. Even in cases of severe fetal abnormalities or rape, abortion is not permitted under the current law.

Punishment for having the procedure can vary depending on the circumstances, but even helping someone obtain an abortion in Poland or promoting the procedure carries a potential penalty of up to three years in prison.

Several expectant mothers have died of complications in recent years after doctors refused to terminate their pregnancies, fearing prosecution.

Protests continue in Poland over near-total abortion ban 03:34

Two of the proposed bills backed by lawmakers on Friday aim to decriminalize abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy, while another focuses on decriminalizing abortion altogether.  

Despite campaign promises from Tusk to liberalize Poland's abortion laws, his government is now grappling with the extent of the changes it feels it can back. The issue has shown deep divisions within Polish society, with some advocating for greater reproductive freedoms while others staunchly opposing any loosening of the current restrictions.

Polish Parliament Considers Liberalizing Strict Abortion Laws
Abortion rights supporters hold the All Women's Strike flag as they celebrate after watching Poland's Parliament vote on four draft proposals to amend abortion laws in the country, April 12, 2024, in Warsaw, Poland. Omar Marques/Getty Images

The president of the parliament, Szymon Holownia, has proposed holding a national referendum on the issue. A referendum result backing an easing of the restrictions would heap more pressure on Duda, who has so far vetoed any attempt to amend the existing laws that were pushed through by his political allies.

A November 2022 survey in Polan found that 70% of respondents supported legal abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy, indicating widespread public support for an easing of the current laws. 

The measures voted on Friday were not pieces of actual legislation, just proposals on which future bills could be based. But along with the public opinion polls and moderate Prime Minister Tusk's December election win over incumbent Mateusz Morawiecki, a right-wing nationalist of the PiS party, it hints at a wider shift in attitudes in what has emerged over the last decade to be one of Europe's most conservative-leaning nations.

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