Poland has a strict abortion law — and many abortions. Lawmakers are now tackling the legislation

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Dariusz Matecki, a conservative lawmaker in the Polish parliament, displays a poster showing a fetus and the words "10th week after conception," during a debate on liberalizing the abortion law , in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday April 11, 2024. He also played the sound of a child's heartbeat through a microphone next to his chair. The traditionally Catholic nation has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe but the reality is that many women terminate pregnancies at home with pills mailed from abroad. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW – Poland’s parliament held a long-awaited debate Thursday on liberalizing the country's strict abortion law. The traditionally Catholic nation has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe, but many women terminate pregnancies at home with pills mailed from abroad.

Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament considered four proposals and will vote Friday on whether to send them for further work.

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Abortion is regulated by a 1993 law that was heavily influenced by the Catholic church, and was further restricted following a 2020 constitutional court ruling preventing abortion in case of fetal abnormalities.

“The abortion ban does not work,” left-wing lawmaker Katarzyna Ueberhan said during the debate. “One in three women in Poland has had an abortion. One in three. I am one of them, and I think I am not alone here today.”

Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who came to power in December after eight years of rule by a conservative party that restricted abortion rights, wants to legalize abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy. But his three-party governing coalition is torn on the issue, and conservatives in his alliance had pushed to keep the issue off the agenda until last weekend's local elections were over.

Surveys show public support for a more liberal law, but those fighting for a total ban are also mobilized.

A conservative lawmaker, Dariusz Matecki, played the sound of a child’s heartbeat through a microphone at one point in the debate and held a poster showing a fetus and the words “10th week after conception."

Władysław Kurowski with the main conservative opposition party, Law and Justice, argued that lawmakers should instead deal with the country's falling birth rate, and said “we must resolutely oppose this crime against the Polish people.”

Meanwhile, an anti-abortion group held a demonstration outside showing graphic images.

“Even if these criminal and murderous laws are pushed through, the voice of the pro-life community will still rise very strongly and defend the unborn,” said Marcin Perlowski, one of the campaigners.

Crucially, conservative politicians hold key political positions with the power to block change.

One is President Andrzej Duda, who holds veto power over legislation and who last month vetoed a law that would have allowed over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill for girls and women ages 15 and above.

The other is the parliament speaker, Szymon Hołownia, who had once considered becoming a Dominican friar. Abortion rights advocates accuse him of violating the will of voters by keeping the issue off the agenda for months.

“He is a Christian fundamentalist abusing his power as the speaker of parliament,” said Marta Lempart, head of the Women's Strike, a group that organized mass protests in recent years while the previous right-wing government pushed to restrict abortion rights.

Under the current law, doctors in Poland can only provide abortions if a woman's health or life is at risk or if the pregnancy results from a crime. However, doctors often will not perform abortions even when they are permissible under the law, citing their conscience.

There have been cases in recent years of women with troubled pregnancies who died after doctors prioritized keeping the fetuses alive.

Women with pregnancies resulting from rape have the right to an abortion if they report the crime to the prosecutor’s office. But in practice, no woman has done so for the past 10 years due to the double stigma of acknowledging the rape publicly and seeking an abortion, said Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist with Abortion Dream Team, one of several groups that helps Polish women obtain abortion pills from abroad or travel abroad for the procedure.

“There is no trust in the official system,” she said.

Broniarczyk estimated that about 120,000 abortions occur per year among women in Poland — some 50,000 provided by her group alone.

Another Polish activist who helps provide abortions is activist Kinga Jelińska with the group Women Help Women. She runs a helpline from the Netherlands and sends pills to Poland.

Jelińska, in parliament Thursday, said the network of groups helping women have abortions at home are the only ones in Poland who follow World Health Organization guidelines on abortion care, which stress the use of pills as the safest abortion method.

“It’s not the state, it’s not the doctors, but feminists like myself and my colleagues ... that do the most abortions in this country,” she said, holding up a packet of pills.

Under the law, it's not a crime for women to end their pregnancies, but assisting a woman in terminating her pregnancy is a crime punishable by three years in prison.

A bill proposed by the left would decriminalize such assistance. Two other bills, one drafted by the left and the other by Tusk's Civic Coalition, propose legalizing abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

A fourth bill, introduced by the parliament speaker's conservative political grouping, the Third Way, would return Poland to the pre-2020 situation, meaning women could once again terminate pregnancies on the basis of fetal defects but most restrictions on abortions would remain.

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