POLAND – Polish Sjem passes three abortion bills on 12 April at first reading and sends them to committee for further work 

Before 2021, Poland’s abortion law was already one of the strictest in Europe, allowing terminations in only three circumstances: if a pregnancy threatened the woman’s life or health; if it resulted from a criminal act such as rape; or if a severe defect was diagnosed in the fetus. In October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal (TK), a body seen as being under the influence of the then-ruling PiS party, outlawed the third of those circumstances, which had previously made up over 90% of legal abortions. The ruling went into force in January 2021.

On 12 April 2024, three bills came before the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, that sought to overturn the near-total abortion ban. Each was submitted by one of the three main groups in the ruling coalition that replaced PiS in power in December’s national elections.

The centrist Civic Coalition (KO), led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and The Left (Lewica) each put forward bills that would allow abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy. The centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga) proposed a return to the pre-2021 status quo. A fourth bill, submitted by The Left, would additionally partially decriminalise helping women obtain abortions, which under current law is a crime carrying a prison sentence.

In the voting on each of the four bills, a majority of MPs approved the passage of each bill to be discussed further in committee. Each will still require a further vote in the Sejm to move forward. In each of the four cases, all of the votes favouring further passage of the bills came from the ruling coalition. With a few exceptions, the bills were opposed by MPs from PiS – formerly the ruling party and now the main opposition party – and the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja). And if any emerge for a final vote from committee, they face a lot of hurdles.

A new Ipsos poll published today by OKO.press and TOK FM, two liberal news outlets, indicates how divided Poles themselves are on the issue of abortion. Asked what MPs should decide, 35% of respondents wanted them to allow abortion on demand, 21% favoured a return to the pre-2021 law and 14% preferred to maintain the current law. A further 23% said the issue should be decided in a referendum, an idea favoured by the leaders of the Third Way but strongly opposed by The Left, which argues that abortion is a human right that should not be put to a public vote.

According to a report in DW, Polish women will likely still have to travel to the Czech Republic, Germany or the Netherlands for abortions for a long time to come because President Andrzej Duda will block any attempt to remove the abortion ban with his veto, and the coalition lacks the necessary three-fifths majority to overrule him. If that proves to be true, a liberal abortion law can only come into force after Duda leaves office in the summer of 2025. And then only if a more progressive candidate is elected as his successor.

SOURCES: Notes from Poland, 12 April 2024 ; Poll results: http://bit.ly/3xyVXnM ; DW, by Jacek Lepiarz, 15 April 2024.


Abortion for Polish women was debated in the Netherlands Parliament last week too

On 8 April, in the Netherlands parliament, with the involvement of Women Help Women, there was a debate on access to abortion pills for women and other pregnant people from Poland and other European countries, based on online consultation. That bill envisages enabling Polish women and others to take advantage of telemedicine consultations, already permitted for Dutch women, in order to obtain a prescription for abortion pills. The bill was tabled by Dutch parliamentarian Elke Slagt-Tichelman. who became a parliamentarian in December 2023, and had previously worked as a midwife and researcher in the field of epidemiology for many years: “I would like to convince Dutch parliamentarians and the government to show solidarity with women.”

Abortion is permitted in the Netherlands on request up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Until the 9th week of pregnancy, abortions are with pills. After the 9th week, vacuum aspiration or pills, whichever the woman prefers, are possible. From the 13th week, abortion takes place in a hospital. In 2023, the regulations were changed so that pills can be obtained via teleconsultation, and from 2025, a general practitioner will also be able to prescribe them.

Meanwhile, every day, Polish women travel to Dutch clinics and elsewhere to safely terminate a pregnancy. The director of one of them, Femke van Straaten, spoke about it in the Dutch Parliament in January 2023. In her clinic alone, 1,300 Polish women terminated their pregnancies in the previous two years.

If the Dutch bill is passed, the procedure would be online registration for consultation, followed by teleconsultation with a person from a Dutch clinic, and sending of the pills by post without undue delay. And since shipments within the EU are quite fast, the period of waiting would not be long.

“The vote is not expected to take place right away,” said Elke Slagt-Tichelman. “We need to discuss it first. Other parties can also submit amendments and propose their own regulations. We also do not want to cause a conflict with the Polish authorities. We just want to help and show solidarity with the women. So, we are careful.”

The above was all written before the debate, which was on 16 April, took place. Unfortunately, according to a member of Abortion without Borders, who was present during the debate, “…the debate was highly politicised and very disappointing. It was good to hear from many of the politicians that they recognize the importance of abortion, the right to choose and how they see abortion as a fundamental human right. However, it quickly went in the clichéd direction of concerns about the safety of abortion pills, the need for aftercare, how to deal with clients who don’t speak Dutch, how it can affect international diplomacy, etc. It was not easy for us to sit through this, because we (Abortion without Borders groups) have answers to all these questions, based on years of experience and are already doing this work. But there was very little said about the realities and experiences of having an abortion. The Green Left party presented the proposal and answered questions asked by parliamentarians from six other parties but only the Green Left and D-66 were supportive. The chances of it being passed on 16 April appeared to be slim.” On 16 April that perception turned out to be correct.

Meanwhile, at the end of the day on 8 April, there were two motions raised by representatives of the two Christian parties: SGP and CU. The first was: “Motion to exempt the remote provision of abortion pills from the Policy Rule on Prescribing via the Internet and leave legislative changes to the next cabinet”. The second was: “Motion on digital provision of medication to patients in other EU member states only if those member states experience this as support for their own health policy”.

On 16 April, the parliament voted on both motions and they both fell. This means that trans-border telemedicine for abortion pills is not forbidden, but the details of how the provision is handled is left to medical professionals to establish, with the understanding that the individual health professional takes full responsibility for outcomes.

SOURCES: Aborcyjny Dream Team, E-mail: newsletter@adt.plv, 8 April 2024 ; OKO Press, by Magdalena Chrzczonowicz, 7 April 2024 ; E-mails from Kasia Roszak-ten Hove and Mara Clarke, co-founders of Supporting Abortions for Everyone (SAFE), 11 April and 16 April 2024, www.supportingabortions.eu