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Poland had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. They just got even stricter.

A near-total ban on abortion has sparked protests across the country.

A group of largely women, in winter coats and masks, illuminated by the camera’s flash, hold signs; one with a red umbrella on white; another with an open mouth atop a cross; another with a message reading “Pedaly Z Kobietami.” The group is clustered together, and appear to be shouting underneath their masks.
Protesters demonstrate against a new abortion policy in Warsaw, Poland on October 23, 2020.
Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Poland’s highest court on Thursday banned abortions due to fetal defects, a ruling that further narrows reproductive rights in a country with some of the most conservative abortion laws in Europe.

On Friday, protestors took to the streets and clashed with police in several major cities across Poland to demonstrate against what reproductive rights advocates say is effectively a near-total ban on abortions.

The Polish constitutional tribunal found that abortions in cases where “prenatal tests or other medical indications indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible fetal impairment or an incurable life-threatening disease” violate the right to life.

The only remaining reasons someone can get a legal abortion in Poland now are in the case of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. According to CNN, around 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland are conducted due to fetal defects.

Dunja Mijatović, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, condemned the ruling and deemed it a “sad day for women’s rights.”

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights,” she tweeted. “Today’s ruling of the Constitutional Court means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford and even greater ordeal for all others.”

The decision prompted fierce protests in many cities. In the capital of Warsaw, protesters gathered outside the house of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s right-wing ruling party, holding signs that read, “You have blood on your hands.” After protesters clashed with riot police, a Warsaw police spokesperson said on Friday that 15 people had been arrested and the police had filed 89 motions in court.

More protests are expected throughout the weekend. “In a few days, hell for women will begin in this country,” reads the Facebook event description for a protest planned this weekend in the city of Gdańsk, according to the Guardian.

Further restricting abortion isn’t likely to be a popular move

Over 100 conservative and nationalist lawmakers asked the constitutional tribunal last year to consider the legality of abortion in the case of fetal defects, something they’ve framed as “eugenic” abortion.

Critics say that the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has undermined judicial independence and packed the constitutional tribunal with partisans who will rule in favor of its political programs.

Political analysts say that the timing of the decision might reflect that tribunal’s desire to help buttress the PiS party’s political interests, particularly at a time when its governing coalition with a smaller, hard-right party is in a state of crisis.

“It’s PiS trying to score points with the far right,” Marta Lempart, an activist with Polish Women’s Strike, a grassroots movement focused on abortion rights, told Politico Europe.

The court’s ruling does not appear to be in sync with public opinion. “Although Poland is one of Europe’s most staunchly Roman Catholic countries, opinion polls suggest there is a clear majority against making the abortion law stricter,” BBC reported.

Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk tweeted: “Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical.”

Women’s rights organizations in Poland say that the actual number of abortions performed every year is far larger than the official numbers show — many are conducted illegally within Poland or legally in neighboring countries.

While the official number of abortions last year was 1,100, Lempart estimated that Poles conducted 100,000 to 150,000 abortions, either illegally within the country or across the border in neighboring countries with less stringent regulations on abortion.

The new ruling could push illicit abortions even further underground by making it an even rarer and more strictly regulated act — and that in turn could potentially make them more expensive.

“Safe abortion will effectively be accessible only to women who can afford it,” Lempart told Politico Europe. “Others will look for cheaper and therefore more dangerous options.”

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