Polish Parliament Begins Long-Awaited Abortion Debate

On Thursday, Poland’s parliament will begin a long-awaited discussion on liberalizing abortion regulations in the predominantly Catholic country, with fissures in the ruling coalition indicating an unclear outcome.

Women’s rights were eroded during the eight-year administration of the previous right-wing Polish government, with the tightening of already stringent abortion legislation causing widespread protests.

The country of 38 million people has some of the most stringent anti-abortion regulations in the European Union, permitting abortion only if the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault or incest, or if the mother’s life or health is in danger.

Last October’s elections produced a pro-EU governing coalition made up of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition, as well as the Third Way and Left groups.

Tusk’s party and the Left have vowed to legalise abortion, but the remaining coalition members are divided.

Bills to expand reproductive rights have been delayed in parliament for months, causing irritation and outrage among many women and rights groups.

A six-hour debate is now expected to begin on Thursday afternoon on a bill proposed by Tusk’s Civic Coalition to legalize abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, as well as three other proposals by coalition partners.

However, the outcome is questionable because several coalition MPs are unwilling to support the proposal in a vote slated for Friday.

Even if parliament adopts the amendments, President Andrzej Duda, the conservative Catholic ally of the conservative PiS party in opposition, is unlikely to sign them into law.

First hurdle 

“Bills of similar content have been discussed in the parliament many times over the past 30 years but none of them was ever forwarded for further committee proceedings,” Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, told AFP.

Tusk, a former EU chief and the arch-foe of the right-wing PiS party previously in power, said he hoped lawmakers representing his coalition would allow the legislation to clear the first hurdle.

“There are many indications that this will be the case,” Tusk told reporters on Tuesday.

But lawmakers from the conservative PSL farmers party, part of the Third Way coalition grouping, have expressed reluctance at easing abortion restrictions and some have already said they will not back the bills.

“I will vote against,” the PSL’s Marek Sawicki told TOK FM radio, though he did not say how many of the party’s fellow lawmakers would follow suit.

Tusk’s coalition controls 248 of the 460 seats in the parliament’s lower chamber, with the PSL holding 32 seats within the bloc. A majority requires 231 votes.

Presidential obstacle

Abortion support is also illegal in Poland, with campaigners and doctors who help with the procedure facing jail time.

Last year, Justyna Wydrzynska, an abortion rights activist, was convicted of supplying abortion drugs to a pregnant woman, the first such case in the country. She was sentenced to community service.

According to the most recent Opinia24 poll, 50% of Poles support liberalizing abortion laws, while 41% want to preserve the current standards.

But getting any new law through Duda, the PiS ally, will be difficult.

Last month, Duda vetoed legislation providing prescription-free emergency contraception for girls and women aged 15 and up, claiming his desire to “respect constitutional rights and the standard of health protection for children”.

The government has stated that it will override the veto by allowing pharmacists to prescribe morning-after medicines.

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