Women ENews article on Poland's Abortion Law

Women Enews, February 7, 2003

Poland Backs Away from Liberalizing Abortion Laws

      By Shana Penn
      WEnews correspondent

      (WOMENSENEWS)--Pro-choice advocates in Poland faced a serious
setback last week in their battle to reform the country's severely
restrictive abortion law.

      Last Tuesday, the post-communist government, apparently bowing to
church pressure, requested permission from the European Union for the
right to preserve Polish laws on the "protection of human life" in
Poland's membership agreements.

      In response, Polish women's rights advocates appealed to the
European Union and insisted the amendment be rejected "since the
majority of the society (approximately 60 percent) opposes the strict
'anti-abortion' law." Signed by more than 20 groups representing
thousands of women throughout Poland, the open letter pointed out that
the government, by submitting to church pressure without consulting its
citizenry or responding to the strong protests made by women's
organizations, had forsaken democratic practices.

      During the communist era, abortion was legal in Poland, but in
1993, four years after the nation became a democracy, the government
passed a veritable abortion ban. Polish law limits legal termination of
pregnancy to incidents of rape and incest; to when the woman's health or
life is threatened; or to cases where the fetus is damaged. Among
European nations, the Polish law is second in severity only to Ireland's
reproductive health constraints.

      Last summer the European Parliament urged member states in a
non-binding appeal to liberalize their reproductive rights legislation.
The Polish Catholic Church began protesting that "Europeanization" would
undermine "Polish values," namely its longstanding ban on most

       Malta, another candidate country to the European Union, and
Ireland have also obtained similar protocols in their accession
treaties, legally ensuring that European law, including future law,
cannot alter their abortion restrictions.

       The governing party, the Democratic Left Alliance--a social
democratic offspring of Poland's former anti-cleric communist party--had
promised to liberalize the abortion law during its parliamentary
election campaign in 2001. After Poland was officially invited to join
the European Union in December, the ruling party's Secretary General
Marek Dyduch weighed in favor of reforming the abortion law following
its admission in 2004.

      "We are not giving up our campaign promises regarding reproductive
rights. After the referendum, we will begin to liberalize the
anti-abortion law, which we know will be unacceptable to the Catholic
Church," declared Dyduch.

      While women's groups applauded his public endorsement of
reproductive freedoms, the Catholic Church demanded a government
retraction and a legal guarantee that European Union membership will not
force changes in the restrictive abortion law.

      Now, with the request to the European Union, the government
apparently has capitulated to the church's demands. The turnaround is
apparently an attempt to assure church support in this predominantly
Catholic country--viewed as essential for passage of a national
referendum on whether Poland should enter the European Union.

      However, the Polish government's request was not strong enough for
Primate Jozef Glemp, head of the Polish Catholic Church. He demanded a
special clause calling for the "separateness" of Poland's anti-abortion
stance and for the European Union constitution to recognize Poland's
"national sovereignty" on abortion.

      Shana Penn is the author of National Secret: The Women Who Brought
Democracy to Poland (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming) and
Podziemie Kobiet, "The Underground of Women" (Rosner and Partners,
Warsaw, 2003).

      For more information:

      Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning:

      NEWW Polska--Network of East-West Women:

OSKA--National Women's Information Center

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