Going back in time: women’s rights at risk in Poland



Polish policies on contraceptives and abortion are amongst the strictest in Europe. Last month, thousands of people took to the streets of Poland to protest new government proposals to restrict access to legal abortion even further. Retrogressive laws and policies are gravely endangering women in Poland and are posing a severe threat to their health and reproductive rights. As an EU member state, Poland has to do better.

Each year, an estimated 200.000 polish women travel to Germany to abort their pregnancy. Though abortion is legal in Poland, their current policy is amongst the strictest of Europe. There are three circumstances in which abortion is allowed in Poland: if the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life or health; if the pregnancy proves to be the result of illegal acts such as rape or incest and thirdly if prenatal testing points out there is a high risk of irremediable or severe foetal genetic conditions.

If the proposal is accepted, foetal genetic conditions will no longer be amongst the circumstances allowing abortion. Regardless of the severity of the genetic condition, women will have to carry out their pregnancy. This means many more women will not be able to meet the conditions to legally abort in Poland.

Outrage in Poland and beyond 

On March 23, 2018, thousands of people went to the streets of Poland to protest these proposed restrictions. It was not the first time a proposed abortion law in Poland has sparked outrage. In 2016, an attempt to outlaw all abortions was called off after a nationwide demonstration by women dressed in black. The current proposals are a more lenient revision of the 2016 proposal, but women are still not having it.

The current developments have not only angered polish citizens but have also been picked up by the international community. The commissioner for human rights of The Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, expressed his concerns that such retrogressing laws will “weaken women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights”. In a letter to Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, he urges the government to discard any proposals on legislation or policy that will form such threats to women. Muižnieks furthermore pointed out there have been cases in Poland in which the European Convention on Human Rights was violated due to the already restrictive policies. The commissioner concluded that Poland has a responsibility to “guarantee access to safe and legal abortion care”.

Attacks on Human Rights

Strict abortion laws are posing a threat not only to our reproductive freedom, but to the health and life of many women. Already are Polish women putting their health and life at risk by turning to unsafe methods or underground clinics to get abortions. If the government is to enforce further restrictions, many more women will feel forced to do so. Not only does this put their health at risk, illegal abortions or suspicious miscarriages can result in unnecessary and unjust criminalisation of women, stigmatizing them as criminals.

The strict abortion laws have triggered not only protest but direct action of human rights organisations and NGOs. Organisations such as Women on Waves help to provide women worldwide with information on safe abortions and access to abortion pills. In 2015 the organisation performed its first drone flight to Poland, carrying abortion pills. NGOs that aim to protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights do not operate without risk. Following the latest protests, there have been reports that Police carried out searches at several of such organisations and confiscated confidential personal data of clients, which is a violation of the privacy of those clients. In a democratic society, NGOs play a crucial role and should thus be able to practice their function in a safe environment. Harassment by the authorities can make NGOs hesitant to apply for public funding, causing them severe financial damage. Without the help of such organizations women will have even less means to a safe abortion, or even to information on how to get a safe abortion. Obstructing these organisations’  activities can therefore be seen as an further obstruction of women’s health and reproductive rights.

Reproductive freedom is a human right that lies at the core of equality, self-determination and human dignity. Continuing pressure is much needed to ensure that European democratic and non-retrogressive values will be upheld. The EU has a responsibility to protect its citizens, their universal human rights to health and their reproductive freedom. Women and civil society have called for action; it is now up to the international community to make certain they are heard.