International concerns about women’s rights backsliding in Poland

Commissioner's meeting with representatives of the Polish women's organizations, incl. Federation for Women and Family Planning

The worsening state of SRHR in Poland has brought multiple reactions from international human rights bodies. Please below find here the most crucial observations and recommendations.

Letter of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe

In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister of Poland, the Commissioner refers to recent developments affecting the independence of the judiciary; women’s access to sexual and reproductive rights; the deteriorating  environment for NGOs active in the area of women’s rights and assistance to victims of domestic violence; and attacks against the independence and effectiveness of the Ombudsman.

Regarding women’s rights, the Commissioner regrets that new barriers are being created to hinder women’s access to comprehensive sexuality education, emergency contraception and abortion care. He urges the authorities to repeal any retrogressive laws and to reject any legislative or policy proposals which would weaken women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Here the main fragment related to SRHR:

“Another issue which I regularly address in my country work and which is of direct relevance for Poland are women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. In my 2016 report on Poland, I made a number of  recommendations regarding women’s access to sexuality education, contraception and safe and legal abortion care. My observations and recent exchanges with interlocutors in Poland left me with the impression that the situation in all these fields has worsened since the publication of my report. In particular, I have learned that the provision of comprehensive sexuality education that is respectful of relevant human rights standards is still not ensured. I have also been informed of the recent reintroduction of the requirement that all women obtain medical prescriptions for emergency contraception , abolishing previous policies that had allowed the purchase of some forms of emergency contraception over the counter in pharmacies. This is a move that goes against the recommendation I made to remove barriers in access to contraception for all women in Poland.

Concerning access to safe and legal abortion, as already stressed in my country report, Poland has one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe, permitting abortion only when there is a risk to a woman’s health or life, a severe foetal impairment, or the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault. The health and human rights implications for women living in countries with such restrictive laws are acute. Most women who decide to end a pregnancy travel to another country to obtain safe and legal abortion services or undergo illegal clandestine abortion at home. Some women may be left with no choice but to carry a pregnancy to term against their will. Even in those limited circumstances where abortion is legal in Poland, women still face barriers in access to safe abortion care. In particular, in several regions in Poland women are often unable to obtain an abortion due to refusals of abortion care by doctors on the grounds of conscience.

Three leading cases against Poland before the European Court of Human Rights concerning effective access to legal abortion care (Tysiqc v. Poland, Application No. 5410/03; R.R. v. Poland, Application No. 27617/04; and P. and S. v. Poland, Application No. 57375/08) have led to rulings finding a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and, in two of these cases, a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and their full execution remains outstanding. In order to protect the human rights of women and girls throughout the country, Poland should guarantee access to safe and legal abortion care by: ensuring that abortion is legal on a woman’s request in early pregnancy; and thereafter throughout pregnancy to protect women’s health and lives and ensure freedom from ill-treatment; removing residual procedural requirements applicable to legal abortion services; and ensuring that refusals of care by health care workers do not jeopardise women’s timely access to abortion care. I have been informed that a citizens’ bill aiming at liberalising access to abortion care has recently been rejected by the Polish Sejm while another one, which aims at making the current provisions even more restrictive, was allowed to proceed. I must therefore stress that the principle of non-retrogression should be respected and I would urge the authorities to repeal and reject any laws and policy proposals that seek to introduce new barriers to women’s access to safe abortion services.

I regret that during my last visit I did not have the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Minister of Health, but I would like to draw your attention to the Issue Paper that I have published on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe which contains my recommendations to all member states of the Council of Europe on how to guarantee women’s sexual and reproductive rights as intrinsic elements of the human rights framework.”

SRs on Health, VAW and the WGDAW communication to Poland

Deep concerns about dangerous attacks on reproductive rights were also expressed in a letter delivered by the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences and the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice

“We wish to express our serious concern regarding the amendments proposed as well as the misinformation conveyed by certain media. Indeed, according to international standards this bill would violate women’s rights to equality, dignity, autonomy, information and bodily integrity and respect for private life and the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination; as well as the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

We would like to recall that the right of a woman to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, concerning intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity. Equality in reproductive health includes access, without discrimination, to affordable, quality contraception, including emergency contraception. WHO data has clearly demonstrated that criminalizing termination of pregnancy does not reduce women’s resort to abortion procedures. Rather, it is likely to increase the number of women seeking clandestine and unsafe solutions. Countries where women gained the right to termination of pregnancy in the 1970s or 1980s and are provided with access to information and to all methods of contraception, have the lowest rates of termination of pregnancy. Ultimately, criminalization does grave harm to women’s health and human rights by stigmatizing a safe and needed medical procedure. Furthermore, the requirement of grounds must not result in creating a barrier to termination of the pregnancy in situations in which the woman will pursue the course of seeking an unsafe termination rather than continuing the pregnancy and that in any case, where objective grounds are required, they should be expansive. Grounds proposed by various international human rights mechanisms have included impairment of the fetus. While the WGDAW supports the extremely important goal of respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of persons with disabilities, the approach chosen to avoid any type of stigmatization should not be detrimental to women’s autonomy and decisions over their own body and a woman’s human right to choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy. Criminalizing termination of pregnancy is one of the most damaging ways of instrumentalizing and politicizing women’s bodies and lives, subjecting them to risks to their lives or health and depriving them of autonomy in decision-making.

In connection with the information and concerns mentioned above, please refer to the attached Annex which cites international human rights instruments and standards relevant to these issues.
As it is our responsibility, under the mandates entrusted to us by the Human Rights Council, to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention, we would be grateful for your observations on the following matters:

1. Please provide any additional information or comment you may have on the above-mentioned information, including on the process of revision of this bill.

2. Please provide detailed information on how the Government intends to proceed with regard to the aforementioned bill which seems in contradiction with Poland’s international human rights obligations.

3. Please provide detailed information about the measures taken, or intended to be taken, to ensure that the rights of women and girls to sexual and reproductive health, including access to adequate health services, to physical and mental integrity, and to life, in line with international human rights standards.”

Source and annex: