The Observer view on Poland's draconian abortion ban

Observer editorial
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP</span>
Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Last week’s flawed ruling by a constitutional tribunal in Warsaw drastically restricting the right to abortion is a grim reminder that women’s rights and, more broadly, the rule of law are under serious threat in Poland. This oppressive decision is part of a slide towards authoritarianism that began in earnest after the rightwing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) of Jarosław Kaczyński won an absolute majority in 2015. It must not be allowed to continue.

Halting this deterioration is, first, a matter for the people of Poland. Although this predominantly Catholic, socially conservative country already has some of the strictest abortion prohibitions in Europe, surveys suggest that only a small minority supports additional curbs. Not for the first time, Kaczyński and PiS are deliberately ignoring the democratic consensus to advance a narrow ideological and religious agenda.

Pro-choice supporters have reacted quickly. Angry crowds besieged streets around Kaczyński’s home in Warsaw waving signs that read “You are building women’s hell”. More demonstrations are planned this weekend in a nationwide upsurge of protest reminiscent of 2016, when tens of thousands of women dressed in black marched against earlier anti-abortion legislation.

The new restrictions ban terminations in the case of severe foetal impairment, currently the reason given for most legal abortions. In future, abortion in Poland will be allowed only in cases of rape, incest or where there is a threat to the mother’s life. Such cases account for only 2% of legal terminations. Each year, thousands of Polish women seeking abortions are forced to travel abroad.

The ruling is a direct assault on women’s rights and a moral obscenity. It is also legally flawed, in the sense that the PiS packed the tribunal with loyalists who delivered the result it wanted. Sadly, this is not unusual in Poland, whose government is locked in a long-running dispute with the EU commission over its repeated attacks on judicial independence, free media and LGBT rights.

Past attempts by Brussels to impose penalties have been ineffective, owing to a lack of solidarity and, more recently, to Polish threats to block the new EU budget and pandemic recovery fund. Last month, the commission singled out Poland (and Hungary) for criticism in its first rule-of-law audit of EU states. Some MEPs and governments want to withhold EU financial aid, from which Poland benefits hugely, unless or until the PiS shifts ground. A poll last week showed overwhelming public support for linking EU funding to the rule of law.

Jaros&#x000142;aw Kaczy&#x000144;ski, leader of Poland&#39;s PiS party
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s PiS party, has vowed not to succumb to ‘threats and blackmail’ from the EU. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Those who doubt the Europe-wide relevance of Poland’s assault on women’s rights and the wider dispute with Warsaw should study Kaczyński’s recent remarks: they are the typical distortions of a populist-nationalist politician disdainful of democratic and legal norms. He vowed not to succumb to “threats and blackmail” from Brussels. “Those who want to take away our sovereignty based on their own whims are headed for a fall,” he said.

“Today, the EU institutions, their officials, some politicians that the Polish people have never elected, demand that we verify our whole culture, reject everything that is very important for us, just because they like it,” Kaczyński told the Gazeta Polska Codziennie newspaper. His words could equally have been spoken by Italian, French or Brexit-touting British ultra-nationalists.

For the sake of women’s rights and its own integrity, the EU must stop pulling its punches and crack down on governments that mock its core beliefs. And it should be clear eyed about the universality of this fight. Last week, the Trump administration promulgated a “global anti-abortion declaration” along with 31 like-minded illiberal or authoritarian regimes. Poland is a signatory.

What do these governments have in common? They are run by men and they oppress women.