Women take part in a demonstration against the Polish abortion law, in Wroclaw, Poland, on March 17, 2021.
© 2021 Krzysztof Zatycki/NurPhoto via AP
(Brussels) – Women, girls, and all pregnant people have faced extreme barriers to accessing legal abortions in the year since a Constitutional Tribunal ruling virtually banned legal abortion in Poland, 14 human rights organizations said today. Since the ruling, women human rights defenders have also faced an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment.
Poland’s authorities should end efforts to undermine reproductive rights and weaken protections from gender-based violence. They should commit to protecting women human rights defenders who have faced ongoing threats and attacks since the October 2020 decision. Escalating death threats since October 9 against Marta Lempart, co-founder of Ognopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Poland Women’s Strike) and a target of repeated threats for leading demonstrations supporting legal abortion and women’s rights, led to her police protection during public appearances.
“The Constitutional Tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm to women and girls – especially those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalized,” said Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland. “The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care.”
The organizations are Abortion Support Network, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, CIVICUS, Federa, FOKUS, Human Rights Watch, International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network, MSI Reproductive Choices, Le Planning Familial, Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning/The Swedish Association for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and Strajk Kobiet/Women’s Strike.
Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, whose independence and legitimacy is profoundly eroded, is widely acknowledged as politically compromised. On October 22, 2020, it ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional. The government brought the case to the tribunal after parliament failed to adopt legislation with the same effect. The ruling came into force on January 27, 2021.
This eliminated one of the few legal grounds for abortion under Poland’s highly restrictive law. Previously, over 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions annually in Poland were on these grounds. The ruling came as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions made travel for health care prohibitively difficult and costly. The ruling spurred the country’s largest public protests in decades, led by women human rights defenders.
Activists and women’s rights groups reported that the ruling had a significant chilling effect as people seeking abortions and medical professionals feared repercussions. Abortion Without Borders, which aids women in European countries where abortion is illegal or access is highly restricted, reported that 17,000 women in Poland contacted them in the six months after the ruling for help accessing abortion, and that they continue to receive about 800 calls a month.
Federa, a Polish reproductive health and rights organization, reported conducting approximately 8,100 consultations in the 11 months after the ruling, 3 times as many as during the same period in previous years. This included calls to its helpline and over 5,000 emails concerning access to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services.
Since the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has repeatedly moved to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including by supporting a 2016 draft bill for a total abortion ban that parliament rejected following mass public protest. The government also supported a draft bill, introduced by an ultra-conservative group, to essentially criminalize comprehensive sexuality education. The bill has been in committee since April 2020. These bills are “civic initiatives,” which require public signatures to be considered.
In September 2021, the same group introduced a new civic initiative “Stop Abortion” bill to parliament. It would consider abortion at any stage a homicide and would bring criminal penalties against women who have abortions, and anyone who assists them, with punishment of up to 25 years in prison. The bill is backed by Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, an ultra-conservative, anti-choice, and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) group.
Women’s rights organizations and parliament members of the opposition Lewica party are collecting signatures for a civic initiative bill, “Legal Abortion Without Compromise,” which would permit abortion without restriction as to reason up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. It would permit abortion after 12 weeks in cases of risk to the person’s mental or physical health, a non-viable pregnancy, or pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that as part of the obligation to protect the right to life of pregnant people, states should not apply criminal sanctions against anyone undergoing abortion or medical service providers assisting them.
In July, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced that it will address complaints from Polish women who may be victims of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms due to the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Poland’s government has failed to effectively implement previous ECtHR judgments concerning access to lawful abortion despite repeated calls and a March judgment by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
The Law and Justice government has also targeted women’s rights organizations and activists. Activists said that government rhetoric and media campaigns smearing them and their work foster misinformation and hate that can put their safety at risk. Several women’s rights defenders were detained or face what they describe as politically motivated criminal charges for actions during protests following the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Activists received multiple bomb and death threats in February and March for their support of reproductive rights but said that, in many cases, police minimized the security risks and either did not open investigations or failed to pursue them effectively. No one has been held accountable for these threats. Police launched investigations and arrested one man in connection with online death threats to Lempart ahead of her planned appearance at a protest on October 11, and are now providing her protection at public events.
The government has undermined efforts to combat gender-based violence, including by initiating Poland’s withdrawal from a landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention. The government referred the convention to the politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.” Campaigns against gender equality have been used to target women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights and those who support them.
“Extreme restrictions on abortion are part of a broader assault by Poland’s government on human rights, including women’s rights and LGBTI rights, and the rule of law,” said Marta Lempart, co-founder of Strajk Kobiet. “It should alarm all Europeans that this is happening in their own backyard, even as European governments claim to be leaders on women’s rights and democratic values.”
The anti-abortion ruling’s anniversary comes amid increasing tensions between Poland’s government and the European Union after an October 7 Constitutional Tribunal ruling rejecting the binding nature of EU law. It followed a series of EU Court of Justice rulings that the Polish government’s weakening of judicial independence breaches EU law. The European Commission said it “will not hesitate to make use of its powers” under EU treaties to ensure application of EU law and protect people’s rights.
Poland’s government should reverse restrictions on reproductive rights and ensure that these rights are upheld in accordance with international law, including the right to access safe abortion. It should cease attacks on women’s rights and women human rights defenders and end moves to undermine the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address rule of law breaches and their impact on women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, in Poland. The European Commission should trigger legal infringement proceedings for Polish authorities’ use of a politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal to erode the rights of people in Poland and undermine democratic checks and balances, in blatant violation of the EU Treaties.
The Commission and EU member states should act to protect and support women’s rights defenders and organizations in Poland. Member states should actively support people in Poland seeking access to abortion.
The Commission should urgently implement the mechanism tying access to EU funds to respect for EU values and continue its commitment to tie EU Recovery Funds to rule of law guarantees. EU member states should advance and expand scrutiny under Article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) by adopting specific recommendations or voting to determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Poland, as has been called for also by European Parliament.
“Despite fear and repercussions, people in Poland are fighting every day to protect rights that everyone in the EU should be able to exercise freely, including access to safe abortion,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women’s rights are on a precipice in Poland, and unless the European Commission and Council act to defend democratic values, more and more women and girls will suffer the consequences.”