Poland’s ruling coalition pushes forward with conflicting proposals on changing abortion law

Poland’s ruling coalition pushes forward with conflicting proposals on changing abortion law
Protests over the PiS government's change in the abortion law. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw April 13, 2024

Poland’s ruling coalition sent its four competing proposals to ease the country’s strict abortion laws to undergo further work in the parliament on April 12.

It is the first time in nearly 30 years that parliament has not ditched an attempt at changing the status quo immediately in the first reading. Each proposal went through comfortably, gathering between 222 and 244 votes in the 460-seat Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament.

“This is a historic day. I hope that … we will be able to take it a step further now,” Anna-Maria Zukowska, an MP for the Left, said after voting.

Still, the four proposals reflect deep divisions in the coalition between the liberal and the conservative wings. A special commission will now look at them, hoping to hammer out a compromise text – an elusive scenario at present.

The conservatives in the coalition – who are all part of the Third Way parliamentary caucus – propose to restore the legal state of abortion regulations from before the infamous ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal in 2020. That is a no-go for the rest of the coalition – the liberals from the Civic Coalition and the Left.

The ruling in 2020 all but outlawed terminations except when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the life or health of a woman is in danger. Since the ruling, an illness or a serious defect of the foetus is no longer a valid premise to terminate a pregnancy in Poland, a regulation that Polish women's rights organisations call “torture.”

The conservatives say they are ready to agree on liberalising the rules for abortion following a national referendum on the issue. The liberals and the left fear that a referendum campaign on what they say is a human right is unacceptable, not least because of the expected demagoguery that the referendum campaign is bound to employ. 

Other proposals go much further. The Civic Coalition and the Left simply want to allow for abortion up until the 12th week of pregnancy, with extended terms where the pregnancy is a result of rape, for example. If the foetus is too damaged to survive after birth, termination is possible at any time, both proposals say. 

The Left also wants to end penalties for assisting in termination. Such assistance is currently sanctioned, with even three years behind bars.

The special commission has no formal deadline to present a compromise text, other than the end of the current parliamentary term in 2027.

But the lawmakers will be under mounting pressure from their leaders to work fast. Prime Minister Donald 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 current ruling coalition in the general election last October.

If liberalisation is eventually passed in 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.

That pushes the date of real change until after a new – and more liberal president – is elected in the first half of 2025. Having completed two terms, Duda cannot stand in the next election. 

“Let's do what is possible in the parliament as quickly as possible. If it's not a quick march and it’s going to take a little longer, let it take a little longer. [But] we certainly have reason to be cautiously and moderately satisfied,” PM Tusk said in parliament after voting.

Polish women say that the current regulations are costing lives, while their voice of dissent and anger has been ignored for too long by the male-dominated structures of power.

The life and health premise, which makes abortions theoretically perfectly legal, created a grey zone in which doctors would hesitate whether to perform an abortion for fear of facing charges. 

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 septic shock – which indeed turned out the fatal outcome.

Iza’s death in 2021 inspired mass protests in Poland, galvanising women’s support for the parties promising change.

Dithering about changes to abortion regulations could also be costly for the ruling coalition, or at least for its conservatives in the EU elections due in June. Any presidential candidate to emerge from the coalition will also have to address the abortion issue in 2025.