April 24, 2024

Polish government backs down over abortion

Daily demonstrations seem to have forced their hand

In the face of massive protests, the government of Poland has delayed indefinitely the implementation of a law banning abortions of children with birth defects. The country’s supreme court ruled last month that this was unconstitutional, sparking huge demonstrations every day across the country.

The government, led by the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), is faced with a dilemma. A significant number of voters are passionate supporters of liberalising its abortion laws. The government supports the court, but it is under enormous pressure domestically and internationally to be more “progressive”. The New York Times described the protests as  “the most intense in the country since the 1989 collapse of communism”.

“The verdict made me feel like my country was spitting in my face. I broke down in tears, powerless,” Natalia Broniarczyk, of a group called the Abortion Dream Team, told AFP.

The nightly demonstrations reflect fault lines in Polish society. “I think it is a whole backlash against a patriarchal culture, against the patriarchal state, against the fundamentalist religious state, against the state that treats women really badly,” Marta Lempart, one of the organisers of the demonstrations, said in The Guardian.

The leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, last week urged members to call for a defence of the Catholic Church “at all costs”. He also declared that the protests were “intended to destroy Poland”, and urged his supporters to fight for “Poland and patriotism” in order to avert “the end of … the Polish nation as we know it”.

Ewa Letowska, of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a former judge at the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court, told the NYTimes that the government’s delay was illegal. “The publication of the tribunal’s rulings is mandatory,” she said. “Although there were objections to the ruling, some of them legitimate, delaying the publication is unconstitutional.”

The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, once a supporter of severely restricted access, has backtracked a bit. He now favouring and exception for fetuses with “lethal” abnormalities. But this would still ban abortions in case of other conditions such as Down syndrome. This compromise does not appear to satisfy either side.    

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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