Home » Poland took the ‘first step’ in relaxing strict abortion rules after key vote – as it happened

Poland took the ‘first step’ in relaxing strict abortion rules after key vote – as it happened

Campaigners celebrate first step to loosening some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws as four bills are sent to committee stage

by Narges Mohammadi

Politicians in Poland have voted to move forward with draft legislation aimed at lifting the country’s near-total ban on abortion, in what campaigners described as a crucial first step towards loosening some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.

MPs in Poland’s lower house of parliament voted to send four bills on abortion for further study by a parliamentary committee, including two that propose legalising abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Polish MPs vote to move forward with legislation to lift near-total abortion ban

The long-awaited vote on Friday followed a six-hour debate on Thursday, during which the deep divisions in Donald Tusk’s ruling coalition over abortion access were laid bare.

Reaction to the vote was swift. “This is a historic moment,” said Kamila Ferenc of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “For the first time since 1996, projects liberalising and decriminalising abortion have been sent to a second reading in parliamentary committee.”

Her organisation had long worked towards this outcome, meeting MPs, educating them and speaking out about the need to change the law, she said. But Friday’s vote was just the beginning of what was likely to be a long legislative journey, she added. “We have a lot of work to do in the future.”

The sentiment was echoed by Marta Lempart, the founder of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, a rights movement that has led the nationwide mass protests against the country’s abortion laws. “It will take time, but that’s fine,” she said.

“We look forward to the start of solid, concrete, substantive work on the legalisation bills, work that take into account the current reality of abortion including the work of abortion activists in Poland.”

Amnesty International described the vote as a “significant step towards ending Poland’s cruel and draconian restrictions” on abortion. Now, as the draft bills move forward, Miko Czerwiński of the organisation said in a statement that it was “crucial that politicians listen to the voices of civil society and those people directly affected by the near-total ban on abortion” in order to bring the country’s laws in line with international human rights standards.

The youth-led WSCHÓD Initiative highlighted the fact that a bill aimed at decriminalizing abortion assistance was among those that had made it through the vote. “It is a chance that the state will stop prosecuting partners, activists, mothers and sisters of those in need of abortion,” said Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak of the organization in a statement. The hope was that the legislation could be approved by parliament by June, given that it requires the removal of only one line from the country’s penal code, added Jędroszkowiak. “No one should be pursued when helping those in need.”

Several lawmakers in the country were among those who celebrated the outcome. “Today is a very happy day for Polish women!” Małgorzata Tracz of the Greens said on social media, while Krystyna Szumilas of Tusk’s Civic Coalition described the vote as a “step towards ensuring women’s safety”.

Poland, long home to some of the EU’s strictest abortion laws, further curtailed women’s rights under the previous rightwing populist government and a 2020 constitutional ruling that barred abortion in the case of foetal abnormalities.

The crackdown was linked to the deaths of at least six women as some doctors prioritise saving foetuses – either for ideological reasons or in an attempt to avoid legal consequences – in what Human Rights Watch described last year as a “climate of fear that has heightened risks for women and girls”.

In the lead-up to the vote, members of the country’s coalition government, which includes Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition, the Left and the conservative Third Way, agreed on the necessity of reversing the 2020 ruling.

But there was little consensus on how it should be done. The Left and Tusk’s party had backed the legalisation of abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, with the Left heightening this call with another bill seeking to decriminalise abortion assistance. The Third Way, however, had pushed for a return to the strict 1993 laws, hammered out between political leaders and the Catholic church, while also expressing support for a referendum on the issue.

Many campaigners had rejected the idea of a referendum, citing polls that already suggested majority support for change and arguing that the format could easily fall prey to manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

On Friday, the Third Way politician and speaker of the Polish parliament, Szymon Hołownia, said that while his party continued to back the idea of a referendum, it had supported all four of the bills. “We did so out of respect for democracy and concern for the sustainability of the coalition,” he wrote on social media. “Now we are putting the fate of these bills in the hands of committee members.”

Summary of the day

Even if the legislation to liberalise abortion is approved by parliament, it remains uncertain whether the president, Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the rightwing former government, would sign them into law.

Duda, whose second and final term runs until the summer of 2025, has long hinted at where his loyalties lie; last month he used his veto to kill legislation that would have provided prescription-free emergency contraception to girls and women aged 15 and over.

The vote in Poland came one day after the European parliament adopted a resolution, seen as symbolic, urging member states to “fully decriminalise” and “remove and combat obstacles to safe and legal abortion”. In adopting the resolution, MEPs singled out Poland and Malta, calling on them to lift the bans and restrictions on abortions.

Source: The Guardian

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