For the second time in as many years, thousands of Polish women took to the streets in Warsaw to protest proposed changes in abortion laws. These changes would ban abortions in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, defects, or congenital disorders – a change which human rights groups are arguing counter human rights.
Protesters gathered outside Warsaw’s Parliament buildings before marching to the sitting government’s headquarters, holding signs and placards while chanting “Your rule will end, but your shame will last.” Around 200 NGOs also sent an open letter to lawmakers asking for reconsideration of law changes which would otherwise, “place women’s health and lives at risk and violate Poland’s international human rights obligations.”
This proposed change comes on the heels of an earlier attempted law which would have banned all abortions except in the cases of significant risk to the mother. The bill was brought forward in 2016, and would have also criminalized women who travelled overseas to receive abortions, along with any Polish doctors who aided them in any way. Additionally, the bill would have increased the difficulty of obtaining prenatal care and contraception.
However, this bill was dropped in October 2016, two days after Polish women mobilized on an unforeseen scale to protest the bill. Over 150,000 women across 140 Polish towns and cities rallied to protest against the bill, and kick started further protests for women’s rights across the world.
Currently, Poland is among one of few countries in Europe with restrictive laws surrounding abortion – only permitted in cases of rape, incest, and during serious risk of life to the mother or child. Similar to many Communist-ruled countries, abortion was legalized in Poland in 1956, but following the collapse of the Soviet-bloc and the increasing influence of the conservative Roman Catholic Church, abortion was criminalized in 1993, and this in turn created a two-tier system whereby wealthier women were able to afford legal abortions, and poorer women were forced to turn to illegal, more dangerous methods. Laws regarding contraception were also tightened, with an added “conscience clause” permitting doctors and pharmacists to deny patients access to birth control.
Abortion is an extremely divisive issue around the world, and many women who are desperately in need of contraception, sexual education, prenatal care, and abortion access are continually denied every day, putting their health and lives at risk. The criminalization of abortion in a number of countries also puts women and their families at risk, and discourages women from seeking pregnancy care. In denying women their right to health care, information, and abortion access, they are denied their human rights, their dignity, and the right to their own bodies. Until abortion is decriminalized – particularly in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality, and significant health risk to the mother – women will continue to suffer the consequences of the decisions made about them, and for them, by others.
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