Reproductive rights, politics, and pandemic: abortion in Poland during Covid-19

Presently, Polish law allows termination of pregnancy in three cases: if pregnancy was a result of a legally proven crime (rape, incest, intercourse with a person under 15 years of age), if there exists a serious documented threat to the mother’s health or life, and if there is a confirmed suspicion of fatal defects of the fetus. Terminating a pregnancy outside these circumstances results in criminal responsibility for the physician performing the abortion. Although no criminal responsibility threatens a woman who terminates her own pregnancy, those who encourage or assist unlawful abortion can be prosecuted. As even providing information or support may be classified as ‘assistance, a bubble of silence and fear surrounds the topic. Despite this, many organizations, such as Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Gals for Gals) fight for the freedom of information regarding abortion.

The current law came into force in 1993. Despite its severity, there have been attempts to tighten it even more. In the second half of 2016, a civic project of a bill with almost half a million signatures made it to the lower chamber of the Parliament. The bill, an initiative of a legislative committee ‘Zatrzymaj Aborcję’ (‘Stop Abortion’) proposed outlawing abortion in case of fetal defects and provided for imprisonment for both the physician and the woman. Shortly afterwards, an opposite bill of ‘Ratujmy Kobiety’ (Let’s Save Women) committee was submitted, proposing to relax abortion law and legalize abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy. In the fall, the Parliament rejected the liberalizing project and directed the Stop Abortion’s bill to the committees for consideration. Immediately, an outrage sparked and the country was swept by a powerful wave of protests dubbed the Black Protest (Czarny Protest). Tens of thousands of black clad women (and men) poured on the streets and camped outside Parliament, and the hashtag #blackprotest took over the Polish twitter. Shortly afterwards, the bill was rejected by the Parliament, but the topic resurfaced periodically.

The design of making the abortion law stricter never went away and came back at the most peculiar time. This year, some MPs alerted the public that an agenda of a Parliament sitting on April 15 included the project of ‘A Civic Bill to Amend the Act of 7 January 1993 on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus and Conditions of Termination of Pregnancy’. It quickly came to light that this bill, a continuation of the 2016 Stop Abortion’s project, proposed to strike out from the old law a provision allowing abortion in case of severe deformity or unviability of the fetus. The parliamentary proceedings were to occur when the country was in the midst of coronavirus-induced lockdown, which outlawed any public gatherings larger than two people, mandated maintaining physical distance, and prohibited leaving home for any reason other than essential business (such as work, grocery shopping, or medical help). This meant that protests such as the Black March were out of the question when the Parliament processed the bill. Putting the bill on the agenda was immediately slammed by more liberally-minded media and intellectuals, not only for the content of the project, which would essentially outlaw abortion in Poland (about 97% of legal abortions is performed under the contested provision), but also for the particular time of bringing it to light.

There is a strange coincidence about the timing when the anti-abortion bills were made a topic, especially regarding the actions of the ruling Law and Justice party. At the time of processing the project, Poland was approaching its presidential election (planned to be held on May 10th via postal service). Many commentators have pointed out that organizing election in this form and during what is an essentially a state of emergency tarnishes the idea of a democracy ruled by law. The Law and Justice affiliated president Duda tweeted that he would sign a bill tightening abortion law and in the same tweet referred to abortion in case of unviability of the fetus as ‘killing disabled children’. Not only would the successful processing of the bill gather him support of the more right-wing hubs, but also the predicted outrage of part of society over the contents of the bill would take away spotlight from the organization of elections in the lockdown. This in turn would enable holding them at a time of turmoil, increasing the support for the sitting president. Considering the above, some commentators compared the restricting of abortion law to a stick which is pulled from its place from time to time to threaten vulnerable groups and stir up a response

Unable to gather in the streets, people started protesting in their motor vehicles, creating ‘queue protests’ while lining up for essential services, and expressing their dissent through social media. On April 15, due to the divided vote in the Parliament, the project was directed to the Parliament committees and subcommittees for further processing. This last move is commonly referred to as confining a bill to the Parliament ‘freezer’; this figurative freezer was also the place where it rested for four years after the 2016 voting. Although this time around the bill does not provide for imprisonment of the pregnant woman, it still restricts abortion, and with Law and Justice party having the majority of seats in the Parliament, its passing is a very real possibility

The pandemic had another effect of suppressing abortion and contraception in Poland. As there is no punishment under the current regulations for a woman for terminating her own pregnancy, Polish women have been resorting to asking international organizations for help of in obtaining pharmaceuticals, or travelling  to neighboring countries to undergo the procedure. However, the epidemiological restrictions in border movement and delays in working of the post made that route of abortion harder. Together with limited access to regular and emergency contraception and massive strain on already underfunded public healthcare system, the control that Polish women have over their fertility became even more illusory than before.

Poland remains a place where the possibility of real change in the reproductive rights of women remains unlikely. Despite parliamentary opposition and pro-women organizations making themselves heard, the current conservative majority in the Parliament makes it impossible. The issue becomes even more complicated when one takes into account the populist and cynical way in which the ruling Law and Justice party uses the aforementioned ‘stick in the freezer’. However, the grassroots movements in Poland do not lay down their weapons and continue to chip away at the block of ice that encloses reproductive rights, even when this year’s springs failed to bring the thaw.


Julia Wesołowska

PhD Candidate in Legal Theory

Faculty of Law and Administration, Jagiellonian University, Cracow