Poland's Constitutional Court has placed further national restrictions on their already tight abortion laws. In response, the largest protests have emerged since the fall of Communism. Olivia Fox reflects on what this new ruling will mean for women in Poland. 

On October 22nd, the Polish Constitutional Court placed further restrictions on abortion. It has been declared that abortion in the case of fatal fetal defects is unconstitutional, and therefore illegal.

Before the court ruling last month, abortion was only permitted in Poland under limited circumstances: if the woman's life was in danger, if the pregnancy was a result of a criminal act, or if the fetus had fatal abnormalities.

These further restrictions have led to a near total ban on abortion in Poland. Last year, 98 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions that were performed were because of fetal abnormalities. It is estimated that an additional 200,000 Polish women have abortions illegally or abroad every year. This number will rise exponentially when the ruling is implemented into law.

The court's decision prompted the largest protests in the country since the 1989 collapse of communism. Despite the pandemic, thousands took to the streets, protesting not just the change in the law, but the undemocratic way the decision was made; pushed through without parliamentary debate or public consultation.

This response is surprising for a predominantly Catholic country, where more than 60 per cent of the nation support the existing abortion laws.

However, for years opinion polls have shown that Poles were against the tightening of laws, only 15 per cent back the proposed changes. The protests have challenged the Catholic Church and its influence, disrupting services and defacing churches. Support for the Church has fallen eight points to 49 per cent since March.

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These uprisings have reflected the nations anger at the governing party's erosion of democracy. The government has been accused of dominating the judiciary. Currently, the courts president, Julia Przylebska, is a close friend of the head of the ruling party and one of the country's most powerful politicians, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. There is a lack of separation of powers between the branches of government. With this in mind, how can court rulings be credible and impartial?

Supporters of the decision justify the ruling on the grounds that it will prevent the abortion of fetuses with conditions such as Down's Syndrome. But it will also prevent abortions in cases where the fetus has died, or where it will not survive outside the womb. Outlawing abortion on the grounds of fatal fetal defects will result in Polish women having to travel to obtain a safe abortion, have an illegal abortion or continue with a pregnancy that could significantly harm the mother's health.

Now, abortions are only allowed in the cases of rape or when the woman's life is in danger, both of which are extremely limiting. Additionally, the incredibly low conviction rate and victim blaming nature that surrounds rape together make abortion on these grounds extremely rare. In 2017 no abortions were granted for rape victims.

Abortions to preserve the life or health of the woman only accounted for 2.1 per cent of abortions performed in that year. This is due to the barrier's women face when trying to obtain a legal abortion. Doctors can object an abortion if they do not personally agree with them. In some regions of eastern Poland, it is virtually impossible to get an abortion because all facilities object to the act.

Other anti-abortion doctors will mislead or delay patients to prevent them from having an abortion. Some will go as far as to inform women that abortions are not provided in their region. There is a complete disregard for women's lives, even in dire situations where their lives could be at risk.

If this ruling is published, thereby making it law, thousands of women will risk jail and potentially their lives to get a safe abortion. As history has shown, abortion restrictions do not stop women from getting abortions, but forces individuals to put themselves in danger to obtain one.

Poland's authoritarian rulings are wrong. Every woman should be able to decide what to do with her own body.

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