Has the abortion issue changed Polish politics?

The abortion issue precipitated the most serious challenge to Poland’s right-wing government since it was elected in autumn 2015. However, although it faced unexpectedly large street demonstrations, the ruling party was able to defuse the issue through a hasty tactical retreat and these ‘black protests’ did not herald a broader ‘feminist awakening’. While the government is anxious to prevent this emotive issue from re-surfacing, abortion remains important for many of its core supporters on the ‘religious right’ and is likely to re-emerge in some form during the current parliament.

Moves to tighten Poland’s abortion law

Since 1993 Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe with the procedure only permitted up to the twelfth week of pregnancy if it is the result of incest or rape, puts the health of the mother at risk, or if the foetus is severely damaged. For a number of years, anti-abortion groups have been lobbying for a total ban, collecting millions of signatures and proposing draft laws, none of which have secured a parliamentary majority. However, in September a bill to make abortion illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life was at risk, sponsored by the ‘Stop Abortion’ civic legislative initiative, collected 460,000 signatures and was introduced in parliament.

The October 2015 election saw a stunning victory for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright parliamentary majority. Law and Justice presents itself as a staunch defender of Christian values and enjoys a great deal of sympathy among Catholic bishops, clergymen and Church-linked civil society organisations, such as the ‘Radio Maryja’ media conglomerate which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’ electorate. The Catholic Church is, of course, a long standing opponent of all forms of abortion and in a letter read out in every parish in April the Polish Episcopate urged the country’s parliamentarians to extend the current restrictions to ensure ‘the full protection of life from conception to natural death.’

Consequently, although it was not government legislation and Law and Justice allowed its parliamentary deputies a free vote on the issue, virtually all of them voted to progress the civic anti-abortion law to the parliamentary committee stage of the legislative process. At the same time, most of them also voted to reject a competing draft law filed by the ‘Save the Women’ legislative initiative which collected 215,000 signatures and would have allowed abortion on demand until the twelfth week of pregnancy (and later dates in exceptional circumstances). This was in spite of a Law and Justice election promise that the party would allow all civic legislative initiatives that had collected the required number of signatures to pass to the parliamentary committee stage.

However, knowing that most Poles opposed an outright ban the Law and Justice leadership was also hoping that the draft anti-abortion law would stall at this stage of the legislative process. For sure, Poland is one of the most socially conservative and staunchly Catholic countries in Europe and most Poles do not support liberalisation of the current abortion regulations. An October survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 23% of respondents wanted to see the current law relaxed (a fall from 34% in August 2012). Indeed, in recent years there has actually been a decline in those supporting liberalisation of the abortion law. For example, CBOS found that the number of Poles who felt that abortion should be allowed when a woman found herself in financial difficulties fell from 47% in March 1992 to only 20% in May 2016, while the number opposed increased from 39% to 72% over the same period. Nonetheless, the October CBOS survey also found that only 7% of respondents supported introducing further restrictions on abortion while 62% backed maintaining the existing law, which most Poles appeared to view as an acceptable ‘compromise’.

Taken aback by the ‘black protests’

As it turned out, Law and Justice was taken aback by the scale of the opposition to the civic anti-abortion bill as, at the beginning of October, thousands of mainly women protesters marched through the streets of Polish cities dressed in black as a symbol of mourning for their ‘reproductive rights’, some having gone on strike from work or school. Indeed, at one stage it appeared possible that the abortion issue could provide a springboard for the weak and divided Polish left to mount a recovery on the back of a ‘feminist awakening’. Although no openly centre-left grouping was elected to parliament in the October 2015 poll, the original pro-abortion protests were organised by left-wing politicians such as Barbara Nowacka – who presented the ‘Save the Women’ draft bill in parliament and was previously leader of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral alliance that, with 7.6% of the votes, narrowly failed to secure parliamentary representation in 2015 – and radical left groupings such as the ‘Together’ (Razem) party which secured 3.7% in that election.

In fact, the ‘black protesters’ were successful because they framed their opposition to the draft anti-abortion law in terms of ‘defending women’s rights’, focused on the fact that the legislation proposed prison sentences for pregnant women who ‘caused the death of a conceived child’, and claimed that it would discourage doctors from carrying out pre-natal tests in case they led to a miscarriage (arguments which the bill’s sponsors said grossly misrepresented its intentions). By doing so, they attracted the support of a much broader group of young women beyond the feminist left, including many who had not previously taken part in anti-government protests.

For their part, the anti-abortion camp clearly under-estimated their opponents and failed to appreciate that simply drafting a law and collecting signatures in support of it was not enough. In the end, sensing the groundswell of opposition and not wanting to expend political capital on an issue that was not a government priority, the vast majority of Law and Justice deputies voted down the civic anti-abortion initiative. Unlike the ongoing dispute over the composition and membership of Poland’s constitutional tribunal – which has been the main focus of the opposition’s attacks on the government during its first year in office, but is too abstract for most ordinary Poles and does not appear to affect their day-to-day lives – the abortion issue is both highly emotive and politically combustible.

Although the abortion vote was Law and Justice’s most significant policy climb-down in the face of mass protests since it came to office, and will have disappointed many of the party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’, it has, for the moment at least, defused the issue. More broadly, the Law and Justice leadership justified its tactical retreat by referring to the so-called ‘pendulum theory’: the concern that, in the longer-term, an outright ban on abortion could lead to a backlash against what many Poles might perceive to be an overly restrictive law, and could, therefore, actually result in its liberalisation; in other words, the precise opposite of what anti-abortion campaigners intended.

No ‘feminist awakening’?

The pro-abortion camp was clearly able to mobilise a somewhat broader constituency for their demonstrations than, for example, the anti-government Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) civic movement, including an apparently larger proportion of young people. However, without the anti-abortion bill to provide it with a focus, support for the ‘black protest’ movement declined rapidly once the civic initiative was rejected and it had achieved its immediate objective. A further round of October protests held three weeks after ‘Black Monday’ and organised around a somewhat broader feminist agenda – more liberal abortion laws, easier access to family planning, and action to tackle violence and harassment against women – attracted much smaller numbers.

The ‘black protests’ did not, therefore, appear to have affected the balance of forces on the Polish political scene nor provided the basis for a broader ‘feminist awakening’ that could be turned into a more enduring political project. Parallels can be drawn here with the January 2012 controversy over the decision by the then government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, to sign the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). This triggered a massive wave of flash street protests across the country mobilising mainly young people who feared that the new regulations could lead to censorship of the Internet, but which dissipated very quickly when the government suspended ratification of the treaty.

Moreover, the abortion issue was also a problematic one for Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition parties, as it forced them to align themselves with a movement that was traditionally associated with the more radical elements of the feminist left. Civic Platform, currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping which was the ruling party from 2007 until the 2015 election, knew that it risked alienating more socially conservative voters if it identified too closely with the pro-abortion movement. The party’s ability to broaden its appeal to elements of the centre-right was one of the main reasons for its previous electoral success, and an important element of its current leader Grzegorz Schetyna’s analysis of why Civic Platform lost the last election so heavily was the idea that it had pivoted too strongly in favour of social liberalism. At the same time, the more unambiguously liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party, which has much smaller parliamentary representation than Civic Platform but is currently running narrowly ahead of it in opinion polls, was also aware that the social base for a purely liberal political grouping is relatively small and almost certainly too narrow to win an election in Poland.

If the abortion issue does re-surface then the focus of any new proposal is likely to be restricting so-called ‘eugenic’ abortions in cases were the foetus is badly damaged. Of the 1040 legal abortions that were carried out in Poland in 2015, 996 (96%) were due to a damaged foetus. Opponents of abortion argue that most of these were potentially babies with Down’s syndrome, although pro-abortionists dispute this saying that the health ministry does not collect data that could identify this as the cause. In fact, the government is already preparing the ground for introducing such restrictions and trying to anticipate the arguments of those who say that carers of disabled children lack support, by passing a law introducing a new state scheme for mothers who decide to give birth to children with a serious disability or incurable illness discovered in pre-natal tests. This includes a one-off benefit of 4000 złoties and support from a family assistant, but the government has promised that these are just the first steps in a more comprehensive support programme for such children known as ‘Za życiem’ (For life).

Still important for the ‘religious right’

The abortion issue does not, therefore, appear to have altered the balance of forces on the Polish political scene. Although the pro-abortion ‘black protests’ were able to mobilise many young women who had not previously taken part in anti-government demonstrations, they have not turned into a more enduring political project nor led to a revival of the Polish left on the basis of a ‘feminist awakening’. Clearly, Law and Justice does not want to re-open this Pandora’s Box and will proceed very cautiously in promoting any further legislation aimed at restricting the current abortion regulations. However, given that one of the party leadership’s key strategic objectives is to prevent the emergence of any political challengers on its right flank, it will be very difficult for Law and Justice to completely ignore an issue that enjoys substantial support among the ruling party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’. Indeed, another civic movement-sponsored bill aimed at tightening the abortion regulations is currently being considered by the parliamentary petitions committee. So while it has moved down the political agenda, for the moment at least, this emotive and highly politically combustible issue is likely to re-surface in some form during the current parliament.