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Why Poland’s new government is challenged by abortion

Patrice McMahon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

When Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk formed a coalition government in 2023 committed to making “historic changes,” he promised to improve the country’s track record on women’s rights. Noticeably absent in the coalition’s agreement, however, was any specific wording on access to abortion, one of the most controversial issues under the previous government.

The coalition parties are united in their opposition to the conservative Law and Justice Party, PiS, which led the government for eight years. PiS weakened Poland’s democracy by undermining the independence of the judiciary and placing restrictions on the media, and it strained its relationship with the European Union. PiS also ushered in some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, with the help of hand-picked judges from Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.

Poland’s three main coalition partners – the Civic Coalition, the Third Way and The Left – all want to soften Poland’s near-ban on abortion. Yet they disagree on how this should happen and how far the changes should go, meaning the government is struggling to deliver on its campaign promises.

As a scholar of civil society in central Europe, I have followed abortion debates in Poland for years. Poles’ views of abortion are shaped by religious, historical, political and cultural factors that make legislative changes challenging, despite the fact that most Poles favor some change in the current laws.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal made a significant change in Poland’s already strict abortion laws, prompting massive protests. The court removed the right to abortions because of birth defects, which had accounted for more than 90% of all abortions.

Since January 2021, abortion has been allowed only in cases of rape, incest or when a mother’s health is in danger. Under these laws, which also allowed the former government to arrest people for abortion-related activities, about half a dozen women experiencing pregnancy complications have died after being denied abortions.

 

In January 2024, the new government reversed PiS legislation from 2017 that required women to obtain a doctor’s prescription for over-the-counter emergency contraception, often called the morning-after pill. However, Polish President Andrzej Duda, an ally of PiS, vetoed the bill.

Sixty percent of the Polish population thinks abortion should be legal, according to a 2022 global survey by Ipsos. Less than 25%, however, are in favor of abortion being legal without any restrictions.

Those who oppose abortion are a vocal and well-organized group. On April 14, 2024, tens of thousands of people joined a National March for Life through Warsaw. Organizers estimated that at least 50,000 people participated, claiming that it was the largest Polish anti-abortion gathering in the 21st century.

Abortion opponents are supported by the Catholic Church, which remains a powerful institution in Poland despite declining church attendance. In 1992, weekly church attendance was about 70%; by 2021, it had decreased to 43%. Just a year later, another study found that only 30% of Polish Catholics regularly attend Sunday Mass.

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