Abortion ruling reveals division between traditional Polish values and the country’s progressives
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded cities across Poland for at least 10 consecutive days after the nation’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Oct. 22 that the law protects babies with abnormalities from abortion. Karolina Pawłowska, director of the pro-life Ordo Iuris International Law Center, watched as 3,000-4,000 pro-abortion protesters gathered outside her office building in historic Warsaw. The group of mostly women wearing dark clothing, masks, and the protest’s red lightning bolt symbol yelled vulgar words, and some said the pro-life office should be burned. Police kept them at bay. After about half an hour, they continued to the Polish parliament building.
The constitutional court’s ruling followed precedent and reflected traditional Polish values, but the emotionally charged protests have exposed growing social polarization.
“Many people are trying to show and describe [this ruling] as something very, very surprising,” Pawłowska said. “But for me, from this legal perspective, no one should be surprised.” In 1997, the Constitutional Tribunal declared every human life should be safeguarded regardless of its developmental stage, and in 2008 it stated human life deserves protection regardless of sickness or disability. The decision in October “was totally in line with these previous rulings,” she said.
She believes the widespread demonstrations don’t offer an accurate picture of Polish sentiment. She said most Poles are still conservative and attached to traditional and family values. According to Pew Research surveys from 2018, 87 percent of Polish adults identify as Catholic, and 52 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Other surveys reported by the English language Polish news site Notes from Poland found that about 70 percent of Poles oppose the constitutional court’s recent ruling. Data also show church attendance in the country is at historically low rates, especially among young people. Pawłowska believes conservatives remain silent for fear of facing attacks from progressive groups.
Similar protests broke out in 2016 and 2017 when the Polish Parliament considered an initiative that would protect babies from abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother. Pro-abortion groups spread misinformation, saying the law would force women to give birth even if it threatened their lives and punish them for miscarriages. The government dropped the initiative.
The latest court ruling would allow abortion only to protect a women’s health or in cases of rape, incest, or other crimes. Poland’s Ministry of Health reported that all but 26 of the legal abortions in 2019 in the country were because of fetal abnormalities.
The government has bowed to protest leaders’ demands and delayed publication of the ruling, an act that would give legal force to the court’s decision. Polish President Andrzej Duda recommended changes that would allow for abortions of infants who wouldn’t survive birth because of terminal disabilities but would still protect unborn babies with Down syndrome. Neither side appreciated the suggested compromise, but Pawłowska remained optimistic.
“I think no matter what they do, they of course will not allow any more … abortion because of Down syndrome,” she said. Even without the other protections, “still the ruling would be a great step towards human rights in Poland.”
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