The Guardian view on Poland’s abortion ban: a betrayal of democracy

·3 min read

When Poland’s high court ruled in favour of a near-total ban on abortion last Thursday, the country’s most powerful politician, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, probably congratulated himself on the successful completion of a cunning plan. Four years ago, his Law and Justice party (PiS) was forced to back down after it proposed legislation to achieve the same goal. Hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets to protest. Parliamentarians were rattled and the bill was dropped.

Poland already has the toughest abortion restrictions of any country in Europe, bar Malta, and polls consistently demonstrate popular opposition to even stricter limits. But with the enthusiastic blessing of the most influential Catholic church in Europe, the government decided to persevere by resorting to judicial chicanery. After it parachuted PiS-friendly judges into Poland’s constitutional tribunal, MPs requested a legal review of existing abortion laws. Presided over by a Kaczyński crony, the court ruled that the abortion of foetuses with serious abnormalities amounted to an unconstitutional form of eugenics. Of the 1,100 terminations permitted in Poland last year, 98% came into this category. The ruling will come into legal force at the point it is officially published. It places Poland far outside the settled European consensus on the right of women to control their own bodies.

Unfortunately for the government, but hearteningly for the future of Polish democracy, publication of the ruling in its current form may not be a foregone conclusion. For six years, PiS has successfully manipulated the courts and state media, relentlessly targeted minorities and ignored the obligations of European Union membership. Its bullying behaviour has been justified in the name of protecting “Polish values” which, as Mr Kaczyński puts it, have their “repository” in the Church. But the shock and cruelty of the abortion ban, decreed without discussion, has generated a backlash well beyond the usual suspects in Poland’s liberal cities. One worried PiS parliamentarian reportedly told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper that the court’s decision will backfire and damage the standing of “Catholic Poland”.

The evidence so far bears that out. Defying Covid restrictions, farmers, miners and taxi drivers have joined women on the frontline of protests. One miners’ union leader observed this week that “a state which assumes the role of ultimate arbiter of people’s consciences is heading in the direction of a totalitarian state”. Churches have been daubed with graffiti and masses disrupted, some by young women dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale. Priests in small towns and villages have been challenged. Tens of thousands of women went on strike on Wednesday.

Disgracefully, leading PiS figures have, in response, defended groups of far-right activists and football ultras, some of whom have beaten up protesters and dragged female protestors from churches. On Tuesday, a characteristically hyperbolic Mr Kaczyński said that churches should be protected “at any cost”, and claimed the protests were an attempt “to destroy Poland and end the history of the Polish nation”.

Given the government’s innate authoritarianism, some form of the constitutional tribunal’s ruling seems certain to be signed into law, as Poland’s neighbours look on in dismay. Nevertheless, the scale of the pro-choice protests could prove a tipping point. PiS’s brand of Catholic nationalism treats opponents as traitors to the nation. But as an EU member state, Poland’s values should be debated and negotiated fairly in the public square, not handed down by priests and rubber-stamped by a puppet court. Happily, the signs are that more and more Poles are prepared to fight for that right.