Polish lawmakers work on lifting near-total abortion ban

WARSAW, Poland — Polish lawmakers voted Friday to continue work on proposals to lift a near-total ban on abortion, a highly divisive issue in the traditionally Roman Catholic country, which has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. 

Members of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, voted to work on four separate bills. Two of them propose legalizing abortion through the 12th week of pregnancy, in line with European norms. 

One plan proposes decriminalizing assistance for a woman who terminates a pregnancy. And a fourth would keep a ban in most cases but allows abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. 

The party of centrist Prime Minister Donald Tusk is seeking to change the law to allow women to terminate pregnancies up to the 12th week of pregnancy. 

Abortion rights advocates said the decision to continue working on the bills, and not reject them outright, was a step in the right direction. But they also say that no real change in the law is likely to come soon. 

And any liberalization bill would likely be vetoed by President Andrzej Duda, a conservative who last month vetoed a bill making the morning-after pill, which is not an abortion pill but emergency contraception, available over-the-counter to women and girls 15 and older. Duda’s second and final term runs until the summer of 2025. 

Abortion opponents are also mobilized in a country that has long considered Catholic faith to be a bedrock of national identity, but which is also in the process of fast secularization. 

The Catholic church called on the faithful to make Sunday a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life,” in a statement carried by the state news agency PAP. 

Currently abortions are only allowed in the cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. Reproductive rights advocates say that even in such cases, doctors and hospitals turn away women, fearing legal consequences for themselves or citing their moral objections. According to Health Ministry statistics, only 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. 

The reality is that many Polish women already have abortions, often with pills mailed from abroad. Groups that help provide the pills estimate that some 120,000 abortions are carried out each year by women living in Poland. 

It is not a crime for a woman to perform her own abortion. But assisting a woman in such a case is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. 

One of the four bills that passed for further work is a proposal by the Left that would decriminalize assisting a woman who has an abortion. 

The European Parliament adopted a resolution Thursday demanding the inclusion of the right to abortion in the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. 

Lawmakers called on Poland and Malta, the two countries with the toughest limitations on abortion, to lift restrictions on the issue.

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