Updated: Nov 10
Author: Julia Bobowska
Date of Publication: 21/07/2022
Abortion has become an increasingly polarising topic in Europe in recent years. This started after the controversial tightening of the restrictions on reproductive health rights in Poland. The ruling has sparked protests in Poland as well as other countries. Difficulties associated with collecting data make it problematic to assess how severe the social consequences of the ban really are. This data is related to not only abortion rates but especially unrealised abortions as well.
Historical background on abortion in Europe
The last time abortion was such a public topic of debate internationally was in the 1970s. In particular when the second-wave feminist movement put it forward as a central part of women’s right to self-determination. In 1932 Poland became the second country in Europe (after the USSR) to legalize abortion in cases of rape and threat to the mother’s health. Throughout the century amendments were made to the law allowing for abortion in other circumstances as well. After the fall of communism, the Polish government tightened the restrictions and from 1997 until 2021 it legalized abortion also in cases of foetal impairment. Meanwhile, in 2008 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe published a resolution. This aimed to invite its member states to “guarantee women’s effective exercise of their right of access to a safe and legal abortion”. Ten years later The Republic of Ireland passed a bill repealing the abortion ban. At that point, most European countries allowed abortion on such broad grounds as to effectively be possible on request.
Recent Controversy in Poland
In 2021 the conservative government of the Republic of Poland has made abortion illegal, apart from cases of risk to the woman’s life or health and rape. This happened after twenty years of allowing abortion on social and economic grounds, and despite nationwide protests going on since 2018. The European Parliament condemned the Polish ruling party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość). The Convention of the European Court of Human Rights asserts that abortion is a private matter in cases of health care and wellbeing. The restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland before 2021 were already stricter than in most European countries. In 2018, out of the total of 1076 legally performed abortions in Poland 1050 were due to foetal defects. In comparison, in the UK, out of 205,295 legally performed abortions, 3269 were due to foetal effects. This gives an idea of the difficulty of determining the number of abortions motivated by social and economic reasons that are being performed illegally or abroad.
Consequently, the ban forced women to travel abroad in order to obtain an abortion where it is legal, so-called ‘abortion tourism’. In 8 months after the ban came into being at least 34,000 women travelled out of Poland seeking an abortion. Additionally, the number of abortions performed in cases of foetal impairments is not likely to decrease based on previous studies. One of the reasons for these persisting abortion rates is the continuous lack of support for pregnant women and families from the state. Since the 2016 “Pro-life” act, which provided minimal support, there has been no follow-up despite the tightening of restrictions. Meanwhile, the school sexual education curriculum (the subject is called “family life education”) in public schools in Poland focuses on the moral aspects of family planning citing religious authorities.
This approach is failing to reduce the annual number of abortions in Poland. It is actually estimated at around 150,000 abortions according to various advocacy groups (Federa among others). The ban is affecting women from poor rural areas the most as, oftentimes, they have no resources to seek proper reproductive health care abroad. Two women, known as Agnieszka T. and Izabela, died, respectively in January 2021 and in September 2021, as a consequence of doctors delaying medical interventions. The women’s lives were in danger, but the foetuses still had a heartbeat. These cases garnered international attention and have sparked fiery protests in Poland. The government holds its stance, despite the falling support for the Constitutional Tribunal. Polls have shown that 42% of the population supported the CT in 2015. However, when the Law and Justice party came into power, the support fell to 34% in 2019. Likewise, it had a 24% drop in December 2020 even before the ban became law.
Zaręba, K., Wójtowicz, S., Banasiewicz, J., Herman, K., & Jakiel, G. (2021). The Influence of Abortion Law on the Frequency of Pregnancy Terminations-A Retrospective Comparative Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(8), 4099.