Archive for abortion ban

“Abort the Government”: Polish Citizens Challenge Poland’s Retreat to Autocracy

By Ali Cain, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the European History, Politics, and Society  MA Program

Over the last three weeks, Polish citizens have ignited the country’s biggest protests since the 1989 pro-democracy movement in response to the passing of a de facto abortion ban. Although Poland already had the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, its highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, concluded that performing abortions, even in situations where a baby would be born sick or disabled, violates the Constitution’s guarantee to the protection of life. This ruling poses immense infringements on women’s rights and pushes the country into deeper democratic backsliding. 

Despite Polish President Andrzej Duda announcing that the ban would be delayed indefinitely, protests have developed into a larger retaliation against the ruling far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS). Since its rise to power in 2015, the Party maintains support by enflaming cultural tensions over LGBTQ+ rights, migration, and abortion. Prior to the Tribunal’s ruling, women were only allowed to get abortions in cases of rape, incest or fetus abnormalities. According to The New York Times, the majority of legally terminated Polish pregnancies in 2019 were because of fetus abnormalities. Doctors are also able to use religious beliefs to justify not performing abortions or prescribing contraception. Poland’s restrictions led many women to seek abortions in other countries or illegally. 

Since the decision, thousands of Poles in 150 towns and cities have turned out to protest. Demands include access to abortion, non-religious sex education, and the transfer of Church funds to groups fighting violence against women. As the protests grow, President Duda proposed an exception to the Tribunal’s ruling that would allow abortions when there is “high probability” of the fetus being stillborn or being born with a condition “leading inevitably and directly to death.” He later announced that the new laws would be delayed indefinitely and is currently attempting to find a compromise between the far-right wing of PiS and its less extreme parliament members. However, the protests are now past the issue of abortion as various groups with grievances against PiS are heightening calls for the government’s resignation. 

The PiS’ control over the Tribunal is one of many examples of how the Party has infringed on the rule of law. Since coming to power, PiS has slowly eroded judicial independence; in 2017, the Party mandated a lower retirement age that dismissed half of the Polish Supreme Court’s justices. It then took over the National Council of the Judiciary which appoints judges and made it illegal for judges to complain about the PiS. The Tribunal is packed with judges that support the PiS as the Party attempts to use the judicial system, instead of the parliament, to encroach on human rights and create a state that is reflective of a strong nationalist, pro-Catholic identity. 

The European Union (EU) has yet to respond to the Tribunal’s ruling or the protests in Poland. Nonetheless, Poland’s democratic backsliding has not gone unnoticed as the rule of law is one of the EU’s core values.

For the first time in EU history, Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union was triggered in response to the 2017 judicial overhaul. This article, which is used when a member state violates the Union’s main tenants, allows the European Council to give a formal warning to a country,  issue sanctions and revoke a member state’s voting rights in the Council if the country fails to reform. In 2017, the European Commission released recommendations for Poland on how it could address its rule of law breaches by reversing many of its judicial policies. Not surprisingly, these recommendations went ignored. 

The EU has recently expressed concern at two other developments in Poland: the creation of “LGBTQ+ free” zones in cities and towns, and President Duda’s re-election. When the EU responded to the “LGBTQ+ free” zones by cutting off funding to 6 of the 100+ towns with zones, Poland supplemented the lack of EU funding with state support. The June 2020 election, which Duda won narrowly, came under scrutiny due to difficulties in voters receiving absentee ballots and pro-PiS news coverage by media groups supportive of the government. 

European institutions, especially the Commission, have desperately tried to develop mechanisms to hold Poland accountable. The Commission released its first report on the rule of law in October 2020 and the Council is tying COVID-19 aid to respect for the rule of law. The Polish government openly rejected the Commission’s rule of law report and argued the EU was infringing on its sovereignty. On November 16, Poland and Hungary vetoed the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which is the EU’s 2021-2027 €1.8 trillion budget that includes the EU Economic Recovery Plan, over the inclusion of a rule of law mechanism. It took member states months to negotiate both the Economic Recovery Plan and MFF; the veto has already  garnered immense criticism from many member states desperately in need of aid. It will likely cause outrage among Polish and Hungarian citizens who are financially struggling due to the pandemic.

Although PiS tends to invoke Eurosceptic rhetoric, it has more to lose in fighting with the EU than to gain. According to The Guardian, no country has seen greater financial benefits from EU membership than Poland. Besides the benefits in trade, agricultural subsidies, and infrastructure funds that the country receives from the EU, Poland also expects to receive over €139 billion in grants from the EU’s upcoming budget. The government has already started public consultations on projects to spend its recovery funding on. Additionally, the majority of Polish citizens support the EU; a 2019 Pew Research poll found that 84% of Poles had a favorable opinion of the EU. It would be unwise for the Duda regime to continue challenging the EU when it has benefitted significantly from its membership.

Human rights in Poland are now at a crossroads. The abortion ban shows how far PiS has gone in influencing and reshaping the Polish judiciary to discard the rule of law. However, the government’s delay in imposing the ban due to the massive protests demonstrates that Duda and PiS are not above public opinion. Now is the time for the EU to both step up its public support of the protests and find new ways to hold Poland accountable. . In early November, the European Parliament agreed to a deal with Germany that would require a qualified majority vote in decisions on cutting member state’s funds. Usually, Council decisions must be approved by unanimity, posing an accountability challenge as Hungary consistently vetoes sanctions against Poland. Even though the bar remains high in achieving a qualified majority, more states are expressing concern that their citizens’ tax-dollars are going to other member states who do not respect the rule of law. As a result of this agreement, states were able to use qualified majority voting to include the rule of law mechanism in the budget.

Although the introduction of qualified majority voting wasn’t enough to block Hungary and Poland’s vetoes, it lays the foundation for further discussions of how to change the EU’s voting rules to hold countries accountable. If Poland and Hungary insist on continuing to block the MFF, the EU should start considering treaty changes or other agreements that would allow for more flexibility in voting in order to bypass vetoes.  

As president of the European Council, Germany should take the lead in using its diplomatic and negotiation finesse to pressure Hungary and Poland to allow the budget to go forward as any further delays in aid distribution will impose greater short term and long term economic challenges for EU member states. The abortion protests, Duda’s narrow re-election, rising COVID-19 cases, and World Bank projections that forecast a recession in Poland puts PiS in a precarious position. The current protest movement is providing a genuine challenge to the government and the EU must use this opportunity to continue to prevent further democratic backsliding.

Criminalizing Abortion: A Threat to Women’s Rights and Lives

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

In November, the United States Congress heard a bill proposal that would amend the federal criminal code and ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The “Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017,” introduced by Steve King (R-Iowa), renewed conversations among human rights advocates about abortion and its criminalization that have been ongoing for decades both in the United States and around the world.

There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to legislation involving a woman’s choice about her body in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. Globally, countries have enacted laws suppressing women’s voices, health, and dignity, stripping away their human right to control a pregnancy. Today, for example, the Brazilian Congress is in the middle of considerations to ban all forms of abortion. Nicaragua’s 2006 abortion ban has already put women in jail for terminating unwanted pregnancies. Countries from Europe to Africa to Latin America continue to police the female body.

The human right to control a pregnancy was confirmed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where its declaration states: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes national policies on abortion into four categories ranging from least to most severe: where abortions are permitted “without restriction as to reason,” “only on socioeconomic grounds,” “only to preserve health,” or “only to save the woman’s life or not permitted all together” (see interactive map). In the most severe cases, as in some Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador, abortion has not only banned but fully criminalized: women and doctors face murder charges if abortions are attempted, even when the woman faces imminent death because of her pregnancy.

A map that shows abortion laws around the world. Countries in red are those which only permit abortion to save the woman’s life, or don’t permit it at all. // Center for Reproductive Rights

In those countries where abortion is entirely banned or severely restricted, women find themselves oppressed and hurt, both mentally and physically. As female bodies are controlled by government policy, women’s freedom of choice and agency in their reproductive decisions is diminished, violating their rights to dignity. Additionally, abortion bans create a dangerous situation for women’s health, as women turn to self-abortions or unsafe illegal procedures, which puts their lives at risk. This is not to mention the mental and physical health tolls of abortion restriction, especially in the cases where a female becomes pregnant by means of incest, abuse or rape. If abortion is illegal after rape, the woman is forced to carry her child to term and through labor, potentially re-traumatizing a pregnant-by-rape survivor. A widely-cited 1996 paper by Holmes et al. determined in a three-year longitudinal study that among victims of reproductive age (12-45), there is a 5 percent per pregnancy rape, or about 32,101 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights enshrines the right of all to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” This and other human rights covenants create the standard of international human rights law, yet continued restrictions on abortions mean these rights are not being fully realized for some women. In a world where the UN has made their Fifth Sustainable Development Goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” legalized abortion must become a prioritized topic of conversation with real reform if we are to move in the direction toward greater gender equality.

Arguments in favor of legalizing abortion tend to have one of two characteristics: those that argue reproductive rights are women’s rights and those concerned with the health effects of criminalized abortion on unsafe abortion rates and complications, maternal mortality, and female well-being. Central to the argument that every human has a right to physical and mental health is the idea that every human, male and female alike, has autonomy over their own body. Yet, historically, the capacity to carry a child has not remained an issue of female choice; rather, it has become a systematic means of reducing women to no more than their bodies and sexuality, enforced by policies and regulations that make decisions of the womb decisions of the state.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a statement on October 23 calling all states in the United States to immediately adopt measures that allow women all sexual and reproductive rights including “rights related to non-discrimination, to life, to personal integrity, to health, to dignity, and to access to information.” These are rights with strong legal bases, explicitly stated in multiple international documents such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which has influenced many state and national constitutions. A 2009 Amnesty International report on the total abortion ban in Nicaragua indicates that when women lack access to safe and legal abortion, their fundamental human rights are at “grave risk.” The United Nations Committee Against Torture has likewise expressed concern over the idea of a total abortion ban as exposing women and girls to a continuous threat of violations to their rights, lives, and mental health, especially when these women and girls are victims of rape. Countries such as Ireland and Brazil have also been questioned on the international stage in response to their restrictive abortion bans. With the attention and clear concern for women’s rights to sexuality and reproduction by established human rights organizations and international committees, it is clear abortion reform is not to be taken lightly.

The second argument advanced in favor of legalizing abortion relates to the severe health risks posed by criminalization. There is a proven direct correlation between restrictions on abortion and high rates of unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization has determined that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures when performed under proper and safe conditions to guidelines. However, unsafe abortion, which is defined as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy either by individuals without the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to medical standard,” is immensely dangerous to women’s health. Approximately 20 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide every year, and about one in six women die due to complications of the unsafe procedure. These rates are much higher in countries that have very restrictive abortion regulation: there are 23 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women among the 82 countries with the most restrictions and only two unsafe abortions per 1,000 women in the 52 countries where abortion is allowed upon request, according to the World Health Organization.

Yet, despite the data and backing of numerous international health organizations, UN committees, and human rights groups, abortion remains a hotly debated topic. Arguments framed in religious and cultural terms take precedence over women’s health and well-being. The female is reduced to her womb, used as a pawn for governments to manipulate, and restricted from autonomy of body, mind, and identity. A woman’s reproductive capacity, in the terms of restrictive abortion law, is greater than her reproductive rights. Perhaps the data ought to speak for itself: legalizing abortion needs to take precedence in the current moment when criminalization remains a threat to women’s rights and lives.

Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.