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Polish government backs away from total abortion ban bid after mass demo

Published 04/10/2016

Thousands of people took part in the protest against stricter abortion laws in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday (AP)
Thousands of people took part in the protest against stricter abortion laws in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday (AP)

Poland's government has struggled to deal with the fallout from massive street protests by women furious at a proposal to impose a total ban on abortion - and signalled that it would withhold its support from such a measure.

Foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski denounced the protests, which involved tens of thousands of women across the nation, as "marginal" and "a mockery of important issues".

When that triggered further outrage among female opposition parliamentarians, prime minister Beata Szydlo attempted to calm the waters, saying she did not approve of Mr Waszczykowski's comments and that her government is not actively engaged in an attempt to further restrict the current law, which is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.

She said: "I want to say it very loudly and clearly: the government of Law and Justice (party) was not working and is not working on any law that would change the currently binding regulations."

An anti-abortion initiative recently gathered 450,000 signatures in support of the total abortion ban, triggering a vote in parliament in which MPs decided to consider it as the basis of new legislation. A parliamentary commission is now analysing it.

The move was never the proposal of the ruling Law and Justice party, though some of the party's members support it. It is also supported by the powerful Catholic church, which played a crucial role in the party's rise to power last year.

On Monday, large numbers of women across Poland wore black and turned out in the streets for rallies to protest against the proposal on what they called "Black Monday".

Many also went on strike, not showing up to work or to high school or university classes. The huge level of participation surprised many in a country where the feminist movement has traditionally been weak.

The EU's parliament also plans to hold a debate on the situation of women in Poland in light of the efforts to totally ban abortion, which includes calls for prison terms of up to five years for a woman who seeks an abortion, and similar punishments for their doctor.

It was not immediately clear if the proposal will now just die in the parliamentary commission stage, or whether it might still move forward in parliament, where some MPs support it.

Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, passed in 1993, with abortion allowed only in cases of rape or incest, if the foetus is badly damaged or if the woman's life is at risk.

As it stands now, there are only a few hundred legal abortions in Poland each year, though many more women travel to terminate pregnancies abroad or order abortion pills online.

Some doctors, citing their consciences, already refuse to perform abortions in cases that would now be legal, for instance when the foetus has Down's Syndrome.

Agnieszka Graff, a prominent Polish feminist commentator and professor at Warsaw University, said that anti-abortion groups have over the years repeatedly made efforts to get abortion completely banned through petitions or other initiatives.

"This difference this time is that there is a government that owes them. But this is not a popular measure," she said.

"The Christian fundamentalists are part of the electorate of Law and Justice, so they cannot completely ignore them."

Ms Graff argued that attempts to impose a total ban will not only backfire, but will have the opposite effect of building greater support for abortion rights in Poland.

She said the massive gathering by young Polish women on Monday, following similar streets protests on Saturday, was unprecedented.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland," Ms Graff said.

"This is what we - the feminist movement - have been dreaming of for 20 years."


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