Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski has introduced a centralized register for all pregnancies in the country, due to come into effect in October and sparking widespread outrage. Many view the register as an infringement of human rights, which only a little more than a year ago were already curtailed when Poland’s Constitutional Court approved the strictest abortion laws in the European Union. Under the new measures, health professionals will be obliged to register all pregnancies and miscarriages, ostensibly to update current national health records. However, this will also allow the government to monitor the outcome of pregnancies and identify illegal abortions conducted both in Poland and abroad.
The Polish health ministry has denied that this is its intent, stating that the register is only part of a larger digitalization process and will improve the quality of care in the health system. Opposition leader and former E.U. Council President Donald Tusk nevertheless condemned the decision, with many other liberal M.P.s supporting his stance.
Reproductive rights in Poland have long been divisive. However, these latest measures are among the strictest imposed yet, sparking widespread concern. “The plan is to introduce a blanket ban on all abortions – even abroad. Women will be put under surveillance once a doctor puts their pregnancy into the registry,” Gabriela Morawska-Stanecka, a left-wing politician, raged.
This concern is troubling, given that the government proposed a bill founding an Institute of Families and Demography last year to counter Poland’s alarmingly low birth rates by promoting the “vital role of family to the social order.” The Institute would have access to personal data and prosecutorial powers, with many fearing that it would be used to prosecute those seeking abortions.
Rates of legal abortion were exceptionally low even before the new legislation was introduced. This number has now dropped further, with only victims of rape, incest, or with an immediate threat to their lives capable of accessing safe and legal abortions. However, this has not decreased overall abortion rates, with reproductive rights organizations stating that they have never been more in demand. The restrictions have failed to serve the government’s purpose of increasing birth rates, instead merely putting people’s lives in unnecessary danger.
Women’s rights advocates have called on the E.U. to act against the register, but the bloc’s power to respond is limited. In 2021, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that the European Court of Justice (E.C.J.) did not supersede the Polish national court’s authority, severely undermining the primacy of E.U. law. This ruling means any legal action taken by the E.C.J. can and is likely to be rejected outright by Warsaw. Poland is already subject to the E.U.’s Article 7 procedure, through which it could lose its voting rights, but this measure is currently being vetoed by Hungary, in response to the same article being invoked upon itself.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, has approved a multi-billion COVID recovery payment for Poland but has confirmed that the funds will not be released until key rule of law issues have been rectified, giving hope for increased action from the E.U.
Many, like Urszula Grycuk of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland, have advocated for further financial repercussions. Poland is the largest recipient of E.U. funding, receiving more than €18 billion in 2020 alone, and withholding funds could have a substantial effect on the Polish government’s willingness to co-operate with the Union. “Since values do not speak to the Polish authorities, please talk money to them so block funds, and if possible, redirect the funds where they could serve the values the EU stands for, by supporting civil society financially,” Grycuk said.
Denying or dissuading people from accessing critical medical treatment, which includes abortions, only puts people’s lives at risk. The Polish government’s pregnancy monitoring only exacerbates this issue. The international community must do more than simply condemn Niedzielski’s register. Action, whether through sanctions, fines, or other legal measures, must be taken to protect the fundamental human rights of those who can become pregnant. The longer that inaction persists, the more women will die.