The lower house of parliament, the Sejm, will tomorrow decide whether to debate legislation that could effectively ban abortion and sex education in Poland, after they were added to the agenda by the speaker last week.

While such proposals have in the past provoked mass street protests, the current coronavirus lockdown means that opponents have had to find alternative ways of expressing their dissent – from home, in their cars, and online.

Both bills take the form of citizen’s initiatives, which are legislative proposals that, if they attract at least 100,000 supporting signatures, can be submitted to parliament for consideration.

Because they were submitted during the previous parliamentary term, the Sejm’s rules require that they be reviewed no later than six months into the next one. In this case, the deadline is 12 May, making the parliamentary session starting on 15 April the final date for review. Three other citizen’s initiatives on separate issues have also been added to the parliamentary agenda for the same reason.

Effectively ending legal abortion

The first initiative, entitled “Stop abortion” (Zatrzymaj aborcję) proposes to prohibit the termination of pregnancies due to foetal defects. This is one of the only three cases in which abortion is legally permitted in Poland, the other two being a threat to the mother’s life or health, or pregnancy resulting from a criminal act.

However, the diagnosis of birth defects is the justification for around 98% of the 1,000 or so legal abortions that take place in Poland each year, meaning that the proposed bill would almost complete end lawful terminations.

A similar citizen’s initiative in 2016 provoked mass “black protests” by women, forcing the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to back away from it, despite having previously expressed some support for the proposal

The current legislation was submitted to parliament by Kaja Godek, a prominent pro-life activist, in November 2017 with the backing of 830,000 signatures. But, following further protests, it was delayed until the end of the parliamentary term in 2019.

The bill is slightly less extreme than the earlier 2016 proposal, in that it would not introduce jail sentences for women who break the law or fines for complicit doctors.

Protesting in lockdown

Unlike in previous years, mass street protests are impossible due to current restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, including limiting public gatherings to no more than two people. Women’s rights groups have therefore encouraged alternative forms of dissent.

These include holding up posters and home-made banners while queuing outside shops, or displaying them while riding bicycles. Protests have also been held in cars, with one today in Warsaw blocking off the central Rondo Dmowskiego roundabout, with drivers honking horns and holding up signs in car windows.

Opublikowany przez Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet Piątek, 10 kwietnia 2020

Opponents of the legislation have also been putting up posters, banners and black umbrellas (a symbol of previous protests) in windows and on balconies. They have been encouraged to send emails to MPs calling on them to reject the bill on its first reading. Daily “twitterstorms” between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. are also seeking to flood social media with posts, tagging leading politicians.

It is too early to say whether the PiS-controlled Sejm will decide in favour of considering the proposal – in which case it would be sent to committee for further work ahead of a second and third reading – or whether it will reject the project outright.

Senior PiS figures have previously expressed public support for banning terminations due to birth defects, which they refer to as “eugenic abortion”. The party’s chairman – and Poland’s de facto leader – Jarosław Kaczyński said in 2016 that his party would “strive to ensure that even very difficult pregnancies, when the child is condemned to death, is severely deformed, will end in birth, so that the child can be christened, buried, given a name”.

Yet the party leadership backed away from both proposed abortion bans in the last term, leading to criticism from religious conservatives. Critics included the head of Poland’s Catholic episcopate, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who “expressed disappointment” that PiS had not “fulfilled its electoral promise to protect life from the moment of conception”.

Polityka weekly argues that a rejection of the proposal after its first reading is unlikely, as the only citizens’ initiative to be ever rejected by PiS right away has been a bill to liberalise abortion rules.

President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, has also expressed his support for banning “eugenic abortion”. Earlier this month, in an interview with Catholic weekly Niedziela, he again said that he would sign such a bill into law if it crossed his desk because he believes that “killing disabled children is simply murder”.

Proposals to tighten Poland’s abortion law – which is already the strictest in the EU apart from Malta’s – do not however have much public support, according to polls. An IPSOS survey conducted in 2018 found that only 11% of respondents supported stricter abortion rules, 44% were happy with the current law, while 38% said they would prefer more liberal access. Other polling has produced similar results.

Criminalising sex education?

On Wednesday, parliament will also consider a second controversial citizen’s initiative, entitled “Stop paedophilia”. It envisions jail sentences for those who “propagate or approve of engagement by minors in sexual intercourse or other sexual activity” while “performing activities related to upbringing, education, health care or care of minors”.

Critics argue that the wording of the law would effectively make it a criminal offence to teach sex education to minors. The organisation behind the initiative, Fundacja Pro, has publicly campaigned against sex education, which it says is a way of “preparing or perpetrating paedophile offences” and “sexually corrupting children”.

The European Parliament last year passed a resolution condemning the proposed law. However, the initiative met with a positive response from some PiS MPs upon first being discussed in parliament. They suggested increasing the maximum prison sentence for those violating the law from three to five years.

European Parliament condemns proposed “criminalisation of sex education in Poland”

On Tuesday, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Poland’s parliament to reject both bills, saying they could restrict women’s rights to safe and legal abortions and children’s rights to sex education, reports Reuters.

The issue of Poland’s strict abortion laws has already attracted renewed attention amid the coronavirus lockdown. Restrictions on movement have limited access to illegal abortions, an estimated tens of thousands of which take place each year.

It has also made it more difficult for women to travel to neighbouring countries to secure abortions, with stricter border controls now in place and anyone returning to Poland from abroad required to enter two weeks of quarantine. Many also worry about delayed shipments of “abortion pills”, which are illegal in Poland.

As a result, doctors warn about a rise in “back alley” abortions. Aborcyjny Dream Team, a charity helping Polish women seeking abortions abroad, has reported double its usual number of callers. Nine out of ten callers asked about access to pills that are illegal in Poland.

Main image credits: Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet

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