Poland begins big abortion debate that could rock Tusk government

Poland begins big abortion debate that could rock Tusk government
As many as four legislative drafts seeking to ease Poland’s currently super-strict abortion laws are heading to a vote. A defeat could damage Prime Minister Donald Trump (pictured) . / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw April 11, 2024

As many as four legislative drafts seeking to ease Poland’s currently super-strict abortion laws are heading to a vote on April 12 that could set off an early political crisis in the ruling centrist coalition led by Donald Tusk.

The drafts which the lawmakers debated intensely for six hours on April 11 reflect divisions in the coalition between the liberals and the left on one side and the more conservative deputies on the other.

The conservatives in the coalition who are all in the Third Way parliamentary caucus are hesitating whether to vote in favour of the drafts by liberals and the left. That is despite efforts by Tusk and the parliament’s Speaker Szymon Holownia to push all four drafts to work in a special commission in the hope of finding a compromise text.

With the coalition having just a 17-vote majority in the parliament, a similar number of abstentions or nays from the coalition’s conservative wing could sink the more liberal proposals, resulting in a spectacular defeat for Tusk.

That would ignite a political crisis in the coalition, which has only been in power since mid-December.

Tusk has spoken repeatedly that he would like Poland’s abortion laws to be liberalised after campaign promises to do so inspired hundreds of thousands of women to back him and the now-ruling coalition in the general election last October.

Among the four proposals going to vote, Tusk’s liberal party the Civic Coalition and the Left want to allow for abortion up until the 12th week of pregnancy. 

In a separate draft, considered the least controversial of the ones going into the debate, the Left also wants to end penalties for assisting in termination. Such assistance is currently sanctioned with even three years behind bars.

The conservatives from the Third Way grouping oppose liberalisation and push for a national referendum on the issue. 

They also propose to restore the legal state of abortion regulations from before the infamous ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal in 2020. The ruling all but outlawed terminations except when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the life or health of a woman is in danger.

The life and health premise created a grey zone, however, in which doctors would hesitate whether to perform an abortion for fear of being charged. That, say women's rights organisations, has cost some women their lives.

In one case, a woman, known only by her first name Iza, was admitted to a hospital in the 22nd week of pregnancy after her waters broke.  In a series of text messages to her mother, Iza feared doctors’ inaction could lead to her suffering a fatal septic shock – which is what happened.

Iza’s death in 2021 inspired mass protests in Poland, galvanising women’s support for the parties promising change with the change now hanging on the Third Way's conservatives in the Tusk-led coalition.

The Third Way leaders Holownia and Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz said their MPs will be free to vote on each of the four drafts in line with their conscience.

“I cannot guarantee the result of the votes,” Holownia told a press conference on April 11.

If liberalisation is eventually passed in the parliament currently an unlikely scenario President Andrzej Duda is nearly certain to veto it. The ruling coalition does not have enough votes to overturn a presidential veto.

Duda is a steadfast ally of the previous ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that drove the tightening of abortion regulations.

“We are not going to give up, ever. Women must have a choice,” Anna-Maria Zukowska, an MP for the Left, said during the debate.

“We will submit these draft laws as many times as needed until we secure a majority and until we elect a president about whom there will be no doubt that he will sign a law legalising abortion so that it is free, safe, and available to those who need it,” Zukowska said.