Polish parliament debates divisive issue of abortion


  • World
  • Thursday, 11 Apr 2024

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk attends a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 22, 2024. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo

WARSAW (Reuters) -Polish lawmakers began a heated debate on liberalising access to abortion on Thursday, a central election campaign promise of Prime Minister Donald Tusk that has opened a rift within his pro-European coalition in recent weeks.

Women's rights are high on the agenda in Poland, which introduced a near-total ban on abortion in 2021 and where the previous, nationalist government embedded its conservative social values in law during its eight-year rule.

Since winning power in October, Tusk's broad coalition that encompasses left-wing politicians alongside Christian democrats, has already reinstated public funding for in vitro fertilisation and voted to change rules on access to emergency contraception.

But it is struggling to agree on abortion policy, a key focus of Tusk's campaign which tapped into simmering public anger about the tough curbs. Political observers said it was one of the motivations behind a record turnout in the October vote.

"The atmosphere is heated because it is something we differ on among coalition partners," parliament speaker Szymon Holownia, a former Catholic journalist, told reporters on Wednesday.

Under existing laws, abortion is legal in the case of rape, incest or a danger to the woman's health or life, but terminations of pregnancies with foetal defects are banned.

Activists say even legal abortion is often difficult to obtain because doctors and hospital administrators are unsure of the rules or refuse to perform terminations on moral grounds.

Fertility rates in Poland fell to the lowest since World War Two last year. Women's rights campaigners say that's in part because women are fearful of having children following a handful of cases in which pregnant women died in hospital as the result of complications linked to strict abortion rules.

The European Parliament urged EU member states on Thursday to fully decriminalise abortion and called on Poland and Malta to repeal laws that ban and restrict it.

Opinion polls show that Poland, a predominantly Catholic country, is shifting away from the Church's teachings and a growing number of voters want more abortion rights. A recent survey by Ipsos said 62% of Poles support the right to abortion until 12 weeks.

Lawmakers on Thursday began debating several bills, two of them making abortion legal without limitations until 12 weeks of pregnancy. Another reinstates the right to abortion in case of foetal abnormalities, returning to the situation before a 2020 constitutional court ruling banned such procedures.

"The state must do everything to ensure that abortion is safe, accessible, legal and takes place in appropriate conditions," Katarzyna Kotula, minister for equality, was quoted as saying by PAP news agency.

It is widely expected that President Andrzej Duda, a conservative ally of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, will veto any changes to legislation.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Karol Badohal and Paweł Florkiewicz; Editing by Ros Russell)

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