Polish Abortion Law Explained

6 min readMar 2, 2021

How and why did the Polish government approve the restrictive abortion law? And what is the reaction of Europe?

Amnesty International, protests in Warsaw, eng. “The hell of women continues”

In the shadow of a year-long global crisis, the Polish highest representatives have suspiciously put out an even stricter ban on abortion concerning Polish women. The radical step couldn´t be left without a response from the crowd. And so ever since October 2020, the whole Baltic state is astir.

The background

The parliament's majority in Poland is covered by Law and Justice, a national conservative and right orientated party, which is in the country´s lead since 2015. Their chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, is known for trying to revert the status of Poland to the conservative and traditionally catholic country it was before the communist regime. Even though Poland is a republic with a president, Kaczyński is nowadays considered the most powerful politician in the country as well as on the world´s level. Because of the prevailing conservative and religious beliefs, lots of country´s laws hardly correspond to rather liberally tuned rest of middle and west Europe. But let´s stick to the problem of abortion politics for now.

At the beginning of the 21st century, abortions could be legally obtained solely in cases of rape or incest, a serious threat to the life or health of the woman, and a serious and irreversible defect of the fetus. Every one of these cases had to be confirmed by either a prosecutor or a physician in order to allow the pregnant woman to undergo the intervention. According to testimonies of polish women, the process of legal abortion usually took weeks, sometimes months, causing the abortion to be often performed in the advanced stage of fetus development.

For a long time, the law from 1993 stayed more or less the same, until the government started to face pressure from the church with the goal of implementing a stricter law. The first opposition protests against the attempt to tighten the law began in 2016. Tens of thousands of women´s rights group members, as well as others, summoned to so-called Black protest on the day of the debate about the potential abortion ban.

“We will strive to ensure that even cases of very difficult pregnancies, when the child is certain to die, very deformed, still end up in a birth, so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name.” — Jarosław Kaczyński, 2016

The reversal came in October 2020, when the Polish Constitutional tribunal declared abortion in the case of severe fetal defects illegal with a reference to the Constitution.

The official change regardless of the protests of millions came into force on January 27th, 2021.

Abortion is therefore currently legal only in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s health, which corresponds to only about 2% of legal interruptions conducted recently. This means that women carrying inevitably handicapped children don´t have an opinion to decide and will often face very harsh times after childbirth.

Protests and their symbols

As soon as the news came out, demonstrators crowded the streets not only in Poland but the solidarity with the women´s suffering resonated with people all over the world. One lucky thing is that the media, at least in Europe, have let this controversy a lot of space, so it got spread internationally. The influence wave was so strong, that it even overweighted the American election for a while.

Red lighting bold, umbrellas, or coat hangers became the symbols of the protests.
The logo of bold was created specifically for the International Women´s Strike Movement and used already during the Black protest in 2016. Some right-wing critics have noted, that the symbol distinctly reminds of the logo of Nazi ideology, which has been used for a Nazi youth group Hitlerjugend. However, reacting to this allegation, Ola Jasionowska, the artist behind the logo, said that the logo has the opposite intention. “It was created for the Polish women’s strike whose views are extremely opposed to any fascist behavior,” she says.
The symbol of umbrellas is equally dated back to 2016 when the weather in October wasn´t really in favor of demonstrators. Regardless of the non-stop raining that day, thousands of people attended the event carrying umbrellas as shields. It also had it's symbolic- crowds visually gave the impression of a sea of umbrellas which embodied the purpose of the Black Protest.
Last but not least, polish ambassies all over the world have been bedecked with coat hangers- a symbol of the most primitive way instrument used for conducting a brutal amateurish abortion.

The biggest protest so far took place in Warsaw on 30 October, having more than 100,000 attendants. It cannot be said, that the event was fully peaceful and non-violent, mainly because of the military helping out the civilian police by order of the Polish prime minister Morawiecki (also from Law and Justice). His official reason for strengthened surveillance was the protection of safety and public order because of the high COVID-19 risk in the country.

According to the latest BBC public opinions, 60% of Poles consider the ruling to be inadmissible, why only around 11% of them support making abortion fully illegal. In addition, the number of legal abortions in Poland in the last five years was around 1000 abortions per year, while the estimations according to the Federation for Women and Family Planning talk about a range between 80,000 and 200,000 illegally carried out abortions every year.

Reaction of Europe

The decision of the Polish government shook Europe. In November, the European Parliament released a statement that accuses the Polish nationalist government of pressuring the Constitutional Court to impose the near-total ban on abortion. According to Brussel, it has definitely shown the collapse of the independence of justice in Poland and massive control of Law and Justice, after clashing with European Union for the past 5 years of the party´s rule. However, every accusation has been rejected and disproved.

Most European countries have shown solidarity with Polish women, offering them the possibility to undergo the termination abroad.
Amongst the most obliging countries, that are within arm´s reach, are Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, or Britain, with Sweden and Denmark being willing to cover the costs of the intervention.
On the other hand, some countries that could help hundreds of Poles, such as the Czech Republic, initially prohibited clinics to carry out abortions, because it was supposedly out of keeping with the Constitution. Fortunately, the Czech government confessed the misunderstanding and, as we´re already used to, changed the official statement allowed the Polish women to undergo the procedure on its territory.

Even though it seems hopeful after all, to go through an abortion abroad can be not only difficult and risky because of the woman´s health, but also very expensive and therefore not to be taken for granted.
Needless to say also, that Poland isn´t by far the only European country that encounters such limited abortion possibilities. Strongly conservative states such as Liechtenstein, Andorra, or the Vatican have either a nearly-total or total abortion ban. Globally, women in only 66 out of 197 UN member states can undergo an abortion with no restrictions.

And that happens when men make decisions about women´s bodies...