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Polish lawmakers will vote on whether to lift a near-total abortion ban

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Polish lawmakers will vote on whether to lift a near-total abortion ban
April 12, 2024
VANESSA GERA - AP

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmakers are due to vote Friday on whether to lift a near-total ban on abortion, a highly divisive issue in the traditionally Roman Catholic country, which has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe.

The party of centrist Prime Minister Donald Tusk wants to change the law to allow women to terminate pregnancies until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Lawmakers spent six hours Thursday discussing four separate bills aiming to ease the country’s abortion laws. Abortion rights advocates, who have long wanted to put the issue on the legislative agenda, watched from the assembly gallery as lawmakers finally debated the proposed changes.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists held a demonstration outside with small plastic fetus figurines and graphic images of damaged fetuses, and a baby's cry blasting from loudspeakers as they called for a total abortion ban.

Tusk's coalition government is united on wanting to reverse changes introduced by a 2020 constitutional court verdict that restricted an already stringent law still further. It banned women from terminating pregnancies in the case of fetal abnormalities.

But beyond that, they do not agree and the issue has created tensions in the coalition that includes Tusk's centrist Civic Coalition, the Left and the conservative Third Way.

Tusk's party and the Left want to introduce legal abortion up to the 12th week. However, the more conservative Third Way only wants to return to the pre-2020 situation, when a pregnancy could be terminated because of fetal defects — the most common reason cited for legal abortions in Poland until those were banned.

The large conservative opposition party Law and Justice and the far-right Confederation favor an abortion ban.

Even if the lawmakers vote to allow abortion through the 12th week, which is uncertain, such a change cannot be expected soon. The proposal would still need to go to a commission for further work.

And any liberalization bill would likely be vetoed by President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with Law and Justice and who last month vetoed a bill making emergency contraception — the so-called morning-after pill — available over-the-counter to women and girls 15 and older. Duda’s second and final term runs until the summer of 2025.

Currently abortions are only allowed in the cases of rape or incest or if the woman's life or health is at risk. Reproductive rights advocates say that even in such cases, doctors and hospitals turn away women, fearing legal consequences for themselves or citing their moral objections. According to Health Ministry statistics, only 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022.

The reality is that many Polish women already have abortions, often with pills mailed from abroad. Groups that help provide the pills estimate that some 120,000 abortions are carried out each year by women living in Poland.

It is not a crime for a woman to perform her own abortion. But assisting a woman in such a case is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

One of the four bills facing a vote Thursday is a proposal by the Left that would decriminalize assisting a woman who has an abortion.

As Poland held its debate Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding the inclusion of the right to abortion in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights. Lawmakers called on Poland and Malta, the two countries with the toughest limitations on abortion, to lift restrictions on the issue.

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