Near-total abortion ban in Poland: Stop putting the health, rights and lives of women and girls at risk

Warsaw, Paris – Today, the Polish Parliament is set to vote on a shameful bill aimed at prohibiting abortion in almost all circumstances after the competent Parliamentary Committee took a firm position yesterday against the proposed reform. FIDH and its member organisation in Poland, PSAL, call on Polish MPs to protect women’s health, rights and lives by backing the Committee’s position and voting down the proposal that seriously undermines women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

In April 2016, the recently elected conservative Law and Justice party backed a citizen’s bill providing for a total ban on abortion. This bill, drafted by pro-life group Stop Abortion, and pushed by the Catholic Church, was backed by more than 100 000 signatures which allowed it to go through Parliament for further consideration. In September, it was approved by the lower chamber (by 267 votes to 154) and directed to the Parliamentary Committee for Justice and Human Rights for further discussion. [1] Under the proposed bill, women who undergo abortions and doctors who perform them would risk up to five years’ imprisonment (instead of two for abortion providers only) [2], except if the foetus dies accidentally while saving the woman’s life. This proposed changed will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on women seeking abortion as well as on health professionals willing to provide it. The proposal excludes pre-natal tests and sexual education. It equals women’s right to health with the rights of embryos. Polish women will be forced to give birth even when they are victims of rape, in case of serious foetal abnormality and even when their health and life are at risk.

“Poland’s legislation on abortion is already one of the most restrictive in Europe. This bill is nothing but a direct attack on women’s rights and dignity. It must be voted down. Our organisations are also of the opinion that existing legal framework on abortion definitely needs to be made more liberal”

Dan Van Raemdonck, FIDH Secretary General

In Poland, access to abortion is strictly limited. Under a 1993 law, abortion is legal only if it is performed when the pregnancy is threatening the life or health of the woman, is the result of an unlawful act (rape or incest) or in case of severe and irreversible foetal defect or incurable illness threatening the foetus’ life. FIDH and PSAL are concerned by this already very restrictive legal framework and its narrow interpretation. Under this law, data suggests that over 1 800 abortions were performed legally in 2014 whilst according to women’s rights groups, up to 200 000 women undergo unsafe clandestine abortions annually or travel to neighbouring countries [3] such as Germany, Austria, Slovakia or the Czech Republic to this end.

The proposal and the debate around it have prompted a Europe-wide mobilisation in the streets and on social networks under the motto #CzarnyProtest (Black Protest), vindicating women’s right to abortion and asking that the bill be voted down. On October 3rd, activists called a national strike which saw thousands take to the streets in Warsaw.

In several European countries, pro-life and religious movements regularly advocate for the limitation of women’s access to sexual and reproductive rights in general, and to a lawful and safe abortion in particular.

Sexual and reproductive rights are protected by several international instruments, such as the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) through the protection of the right to health or healthcare, as specifically recognised by UN treaty bodies. These rights are also enshrined in the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995). The 2016 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) General Comment 22 on the right to sexual and reproductive health [4] recalled that this right is indivisible from and interdependent with other human rights. As UN treaty bodies and special rapporteurs often recall, restrictions on abortion also prevent women from enjoying their other human rights, including the right to life or to non-discrimination. In his 2011 landmark annual report, [5] the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health called for the immediate removal of ‘barriers arising from criminal laws and other laws and policies affecting sexual and reproductive health (…) in order to ensure full enjoyment of the right to health.’ The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also developed an abundant case law on women’s access to a lawful abortion – notably against Poland [6] –. In several cases, the Court found that the denial of the right to abortion by Council of Europe member states resulted in violations of the Convention, especially its article 8 (right to the protection of private and family life).

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