Poland’s human rights ombudsman, who runs one of the few institutions in the country to remain independent from the government, said the ruling was terrible news for Polish women.
“The state wants to further limit their rights, risk their lives, and condemn them to torture,” said Adam Bodnar. “This offensive is opposed by civil society.”
Although the ruling was handed down by Poland’s constitutional tribunal in October and should have come into force swiftly, there was a three-month delay, apparently prompted by fears over the size of the protests that ensued. More than 400,000 people came out to protest in towns and cities across the country, leading some government figures to suggest a compromise was required.
Ultra-conservative elements of Poland’s ruling coalition have long sought to tighten abortion laws further, even though polls show there is minimal support in Polish society at large for the move. Past attempts to change the law led to huge protests, leading to parliament stepping away from the move.
Instead, the law has been changed through the constitutional tribunal, which is mainly made up of those appointed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and has become politicised during the party’s five years in power. On Wednesday, the tribunal issued a justification of its ruling, and the government later published the ruling, the formal requirements for the law to enter into force.
The ruling finds that abortion based on the grounds of “severe and irreversible foetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the foetus’s life” is incompatible with Poland’s constitution. It framed the issue as being about the right to life of an unborn child. It told Polish legislators they should use the words “child” and “mother” when talking about abortions rather than “foetus” and “pregnant woman”.
Five of the tribunal’s 15 judges dissented from the ruling, although some of these were over procedural issues rather than disagreements with the overall conclusion.
The government appears to be banking on fatigue over the issue plus continued coronavirus-related restrictions to dampen any new waves of protest. On Wednesday evening, protesters gathered in Warsaw and other cities, but in much smaller numbers than in the autumn.
Almost all the small number of legal abortions in Poland in recent years were due to foetal defects. Abortion will now only be legal in cases of rape or incest, or where the woman’s life is at risk.
“Today is a terrible day for women and girls in Poland. This harmful ruling rolls back on pregnant people’s sexual and reproductive rights and puts their health at risk,” said Esther Major, a senior research adviser at Amnesty International. “We stand in solidarity with women and girls in Poland and share in their outrage at this cruel decision.”