Poland: Near-total abortion ban takes effect amid protests

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People protest against new anti-abortion laws, near the ruling Law and Justice party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland Wednesday Jan. 27, 2021, to protest after the country's top court on Wednesday confirmed its highly divisive ruling that will further tighten the predominantly Catholic nation's strict anti-abortion law. The Constitutional Tribunal published the justification of its decision, which will take immediate effect.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW – A near-total ban on abortion has taken effect in Poland and triggered a new round of nationwide protests three months after the constitutional court ruled that the abortion of congenitally damaged fetuses is unconstitutional.

Led by a women's rights group, Women's Strike, people poured onto the streets of Warsaw, where they demonstrated in front of the court, and in other cities and towns on Thursday for the second evening in a row.

In Warsaw the atmosphere was tense and police detained three people who they said “had invaded the territory of the Constitutional Tribunal.” Women's Strike insisted that a total five people had been detained and said one of them was Klementyna Suchanow, one of the leaders of the movement.

Protesters insisted that women should have the right to decide about their own bodies. One banner in Rzeszow stated that an “abortion ban is discrimination against the poorest,” because poorer women will not be able to travel abroad for abortions, as Polish women who can afford to already do.

“I wanted to have more children, you killed this desire,” read a banner held by one woman among the demonstrators in Warsaw. Some Polish women said that if they are denied the right to terminate pregnancies in cases of badly deformed fetuses, they would not try to have children at all.

Poland's top human rights official denounced the further restriction of what was already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, calling it a tragedy for women.

“The state wants to further limit their rights, risk their lives, and condemn them to torture,” said Adam Bodnar, the human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, whose role is independent from the Polish government. “This offensive is opposed by civil society.”

The only remaining legal justifications for abortion under Polish law are if the woman’s life or health is at risk or if a pregnancy results from rape or incest. To date, about 98% of all legal abortions in the country — of which there were 1,110 in 2019 — were performed on the grounds of fetal malformations.

Poland's constitutional court on Wednesday issued a justification of a controversial October ruling that bans abortions in cases of fetuses with congenital defects, even ones so severe that there is no chance of survival upon birth. The government then published the court's ruling in a government Journal of Laws. Those steps were the formal prerequisites required for the new law to enter into force.

Members of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, which is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, had sought the new restriction. They argued that it was a way to prevent the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome, which have made up a significant share of the legal abortions in Poland.

Women's rights activists consider the new law to be draconian.

The protesters are demanding a full liberalization of the abortion law and the resignation of the government, neither of which seem likely in the short term.

In the meantime, women’s rights groups are seeking new strategies to help women. The Federation for Women and Family planning says it will seek redress in international courts, arguing that the new law violates prohibitions of cruel treatment and torture. It is also assisting women who want to obtain abortion pills or travel abroad for the procedure.

Some protesters Wednesday covered their faces with green bandanas, which are the symbol of the abortion rights movement in Argentina. The South American country recently legalized abortion, a historic change in deeply Catholic Latin America.

In a more than 200-page ruling, the constitutional court argued that allowing abortion when there are congenital defects is unconstitutional because the Polish Constitution protects human life.

The constitutional court is made up mostly of Law and Justice appointees who ruled on a motion brought by lawmakers from the party.