SYSTEMIC ROLL BACK ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS – UPDATE ON POLAND

April 30 — Since 27 January 2021, following the entry into force of the decision of the illegitimate Polish Constitutional Tribunal (case no. K 1/20) (CT), abortion is illegal in Poland, with exceptions of the pregnancy being a result of rape or incest, or a threat to the woman’s life or health.

Access to abortion and other SRHR after the decision of the illegitimate CT

A ban on abortion obviously does not mean that Polish women and persons in need of abortion don’t access them: few hospitals provided abortions but obviously most were induced by pills or, in cases of later pregnancies in the clinics abroad. However, the burden of providing information, help, resources and access to abortion fell on the NGOs, informal groups and initiatives in Poland or abroad that help Polish women in accessing medical abortion and abortion care abroad. Needless to say, Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates the difficulties relating to access to services abroad for the costs of travel increased by the necessity to do expensive tests.

From 22 October 2020 to 22 April 2021, the Federation for Women and Family Planning has consulted around 2, 000 persons. Federation’s employees and helplines every day assist women in all kind of reproductive health queries: on access to abortion but also about pregnancy care, contraception (including emergency contraception and access to intrauterine device), antenatal testing which is performed drastically less since the decision of the illegitimate Tribunal. There are many questions about legal penalties for helping in abortion, ordering pills, legal issues around access to benefits/services after having abortion care in Poland or abroad. The Federation’s helpline provides SRHR assistance by gynaecologists, sexuality educators, psychologists and lawyers. For the lack of any sexuality education provided for youth, sexuality educators at the Federation are stormed with questions regarding basic information on contraception, sexual initiation and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Very obvious impact of the compromised decision is the chilling effect on doctors who risk up to 3 years of imprisonment for performing abortion outside the legal framework. To lessen the chilling effect, the Federation forges a path for an extensive interpretation of the ground for abortion which refers to the threat to women’s life/health so that it could cover mental health problems related to pregnancy. We are building a coalition of women friendly network of doctors (gynaecologists, psychiatrists) who are willing to help women in these challenging circumstances.

Abortion Without Borders, a network of organisations in Poland and abroad helping Polish women in access to medical abortion or abortion care abroad announced that during 6 months from issuing the decision by the flawed CT they have assisted 17, 000 women in access to abortion, 600 of which left for abortion care to the clinic abroad.

As it has not been sufficiently harmful for women, there are few other alarming initiatives which are or soon may be debated by the Polish Sejm (please read below). Similarly, they all aim to further limit women’s and LGBTI rights by promoting policies that reinforce traditional gender roles and undermine gender equality.

Istanbul convention: Poland moves a step closer to quitting domestic violence treaty

A citizens’ initiative bill drafted by Ordo Iuris entitled “Yes to family, no to gender”[1], aiming at the withdrawal from the convention was forwarded by the Sejm to the expert parliamentary commissions and is to be proceeded further. The Polish government had announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty last summer, claiming it did not respect religion and promoted controversial ideologies about gender. The draft law foresees working on the international Convention on the Rights of Family. Ordo Iuris has already drafted such convention several years ago and has been building international coalition around this text. To name couple of threats arising from this text, it introduces ban on abortion and ban on same sex marriages. It seems realistic though that Polish authorities could provide their support for this document.

Campaigns and initiatives of anti-rights organisations

From the end of 2020 cities in the whole Poland are flooded by the antiabortion and anti-divorce billboards. Only until 1 February, according to the estimates of Media People (relying on data from Kantar Media), the foundation behind the campaign  is estimated to have spent approximately 5,5 mln PLN (1 mln 200 EUR)[2]. These billboards, with the new designs keep appearing in the public space and keep spamming our collective perceptions.

In April 2021 the Federation commissioned a poll with the purpose to find out what the public opinion thinks about this anti-abortion campaign and whether it influences citizens views on abortion. According to the answers received, 82 % of the people who had seen the billboards of the campaign, have not changed their view on abortion. It is however concerning that such significant resources are spent on ineffective campaigns while the money could be spend on so many initiatives who could help women and families in Poland.

  • Launching of the new citizen’s initiative to criminalise women for abortion

In March 2021 a new bill criminalizing abortion was presented by citizens’ initiative led by anti-rights group. If adopted, the bill would afford full legal protection to the fetus from the moment of conception and limit the grounds for legal care by banning abortion in cases where pregnancy results from sexual assault or if the health of a pregnant person is at risk, as provided for in the Family Planning Act currently in force.  Abortion would be treated as homicide punishable up to 25 years of imprisonment or even life imprisonment, although the court would have discretion to issue a more lenient punishment or waive the punishment altogether[3].

  • New legislative initiative of Polish conservative MPs[4]

16 Polish MPs aligned with the conservative ruling coalition have presented another draft bill, which, under the pretext of providing care to pregnant women whose fetuses have a “suspected or diagnosed lethal defect,” would require them to be referred to antenatal hospices where their pregnancies would be monitored and their decisions about pregnancy could be influenced.

  • “Stop abortion crimes” campaign

The antirights campaigners launched action called “Stop abortion crimes” which encourages citizens to lodge criminal complaints against anyone, especially SRHR activists and persons providing help in access information and SRHR services[5]. Persons supporting women to access medical abortion on the private groups on social media were already reported to the police for the alleged “genocide”[6].

Threats to human rights defenders[7]

Feminist activists (including all employees of the Federation), members of human rights organizations and politicians supporting feminist movement, right to abortion have been subjected to death and bomb threats. At the Federation we have received 9 emails with direct death threats (one bomb threat) from mid-February until end of March 2021 [8]. The threats said they were “payback” for supporting the Women’s Strike movement, which has been at the forefront of mass protests following increased restrictions on access to legal abortion. Apart from the Federation many other organisations were targeted (including Feminoteka, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Abortion Dream Team, Women’s Rights Centre and All-Poland Women’s Strike.

The investigation undertaken by the police in this case has not yet led to identification and punishment of the perpetrator/s.

Lost battle for the Ombudsman, last independent institution in Poland[9]

On 13 April 2021 the lacking legitimacy Constitutional Tribunal held a hearing following which the current Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar has lost the right to hold the office until his successor is sworn in.

On 9 September 2020, Adam Bodnar’s 5-year term as the Ombudsman ended. Pursuant to Art. 3 sec. 6 of the Act on the Ombudsman, he was still expected to perform his duties until the new Ombudsman takes over. Politicized Tribunal made it impossible while two chambers of Sejm, who both need to agree on the appointment of the new Ombudsman have not been able to agree on the candidates who have been proposed so far.

As a result of this decision the path to complain about the functioning of the State institutions will be unavailable for the citizens and the continuity of the State organ ruptured which is seriously detrimental to the fulfillment of the constitutional obligations by the State.


[1] https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/committee-on-istanbul-convention-presents-withdrawal-bill-to-parliament-14974

[2] https://www.wysokieobcasy.pl/wysokie-obcasy/7,163229,26873635,roczna-psychoterapia-dla-582-rodzin-dozywienie-4-6-tys-dzieci.html

[3] https://oko.press/dozywocie-za-aborcje-i-nowa-definicja-dziecka/

[4] https://kobieta.onet.pl/wiadomosci/ustawa-za-zyciem-ekspertka-wprowadzi-atmosfere-strachu-i-przymusu/9jy8psr

[5] https://kobieta.wp.pl/ruszyli-z-akcja-stop-przestepczosci-aborcyjnej-dzierzawski-probuje-nas-zastraszyc-6615907442858560a?fbclid=IwAR2tC-SbJ6jm507hkZhSgR1nuCU9qPiAsV8W6REMbXgriJ09UT8elRxLZsc

[6] https://www.wysokieobcasy.pl/wysokie-obcasy/7,163229,26887319,aborcja-to-ludobojstwo-przeciwnicy-aborcji-skarza-aktywistki.html?fbclid=IwAR2tC-SbJ6jm507hkZhSgR1nuCU9qPiAsV8W6REMbXgriJ09UT8elRxLZsc&disableRedirects=true

[7] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/31/poland-escalating-threats-women-activists

[8] https://oko.press/tvp-szczuje-dzialaczki-dostaja-grozby/

[9] https://wyborcza.pl/7,173236,26983417,poland-s-constitutional-court-rules-to-remove-the-ombudsman.html