Rattled by huge street protests, the Polish government rejected on October 5 a proposal to ban practically all abortions. The move is a clear setback for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS), suggesting it has tried to go too fast in implementing its conservative populist agenda.
During a meeting of the parliamentary committee on justice and human rights, PiS proposed the committee reject the bill - submitted by conservative group Ordo Iuris - despite having offered strong support earlier this week. Some members of the government admitted that the size of the protests had been a shock, and PiS evidently calculates that the wider electorate is a bigger risk than that of alienating part of the party's core conservative Catholic support.
The demonstrations across Poland on October 3 - the crowd in Warsaw was estimated at 30,000 - clearly played a role in changing the course. Ridiculed by some ministers at the time, two days later the mood was starkly different. The demonstrations “caused us to think and taught us humility,” said minister of science and education Jaroslaw Gowin ahead of the committee meeting.
Surveys had suggested support for the bill could be as low as 14%. Recent polls also show support for PiS slipping.
That suggests the party may have tried to go too fast in trying to spread its nationalist conservative programme. Mass protests have become common since the party took office in November, especially in relation to the government's efforts to take control of the constitutional court.
PiS has batted away those demonstrations, as well as threats from the EU, but seems to have met its match with the abortion bill.
In late September, the party had overwhelmingly voted for the proposal. At the same time PiS rejected a proposal to liberalise abortion law, which is already among the tightest in Europe.
The change by October 5 was stark. Hardline PiS MPs that had advocated the clamp down were photographed voting the measure down, clearly suggesting orders from the top now demanded the vote match the mood in the streets.
In order to be effectively struck off the parliamentary agenda, the bill still needs to be rejected by the parliamentary plenary, which is due to take place on the morning of October 6.
Wary of the defeat, PiS tried some damage control after the committee vote, explaining that the party has always been against punishing women for having an abortion, which is what - it now says - the Ordo Iuris proposal calls for. The party also reiterated that it plans to come up with its own proposal.
While those that protested the bill will clearly be relieved, conservatives have attacked their previous champion. “[PiS] might be losing their chance to establish the best standard for constitutional right to life,” Ordo Iuris’ president Jerzy Kwasniewski wrote on Twitter.
The controversial bill aims at further restricting Poland’s already tough abortion law, which only allows termination of pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. The Ordo Iuris bill goes further to criminalise nearly all abortions except when a woman’s life is “directly threatened". That, according to critics, will greatly limit possibilities of effective care.
Women organisations and medical experts also said the bill could end some kinds of prenatal care, as it can pose a risk to foetal health and doctors may be prone to avoiding this type of care completely. The bill will effectively cause prosecutors to look into any pregnancy loss, critics also charge.