Why Poland’s new government is challenged by abortion

Dariusz Matecki, a conservative lawmaker in the Polish Parliament, displays a poster showing a fetus during a vote on abortion on April 12, 2024. <a href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/PolandAbortion/f3a5189d08104cee9d0d3a355af0ca9f/photo?Query=poland%20abortion&mediaType=photo&sortBy=creationdatetime:desc&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=791&currentItemNo=9" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski</a>

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.

From strict to stricter

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.

Women and men in face masks and coats stand in an area illuminated by a streetlight.

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.

Church and culture

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.

A woman in sunglasses and a nun's clothing holds an image of a child in utero as she speaks with a man on the street.

At the same time, almost 70% of Poles say that God plays an important role in their life. Especially in smaller cities and rural areas, social and family activities tend to revolve around the church and religious holidays.

The Catholic Church’s close relationship with Polish national identity stems from the role it has played in the country’s history. Throughout the 19th century, when Polish lands were divided by its stronger neighbors, the Catholic faith allowed Poles to maintain their language and traditions. When Poland reemerged on the map after World War I, the church was the basis for unity as leaders struggled to create political, economic and social institutions.

During the communist period of 1947 to 1989, the church was a symbol of Polish independence in the face of Soviet attempts to impose atheist beliefs within its sphere of influence. Political analysts such as George Weigel maintain that the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, were important to shaping anti-communist movements throughout the Soviet bloc.

Three women in black t-shirts, seen from the back, hold up scarves with a red, white and black design.

Splintered support

This landscape of views on abortion and faith and Poland’s unique history explains why political support for various proposals is so fragmented.

Two of the government’s coalition parties, the Civic Coalition and the Left, favor abortion without restrictions until 12 weeks. The Third Way, itself a coalition of center-right parties, prefers to simply restore the right to abortion in the case of birth defects.

Third Way politicians claim that this “compromise” legislation has the support of many groups and so is more likely to be approved. The group has also called for a national referendum about whether to further loosen abortion restrictions. This proposal reflects the Third Way’s main political goal: to distinguish itself as an alternative to polarization and deadlock.

Regardless of which proposal the Legislature supports, Duda may veto the legislation. Conservative legislators are also well positioned to delay any reforms. Recently, the leader of PiS indicated that he is now in favor of softening the near-ban on abortion, but only if there is a change in Poland’s constitution – a lengthy process that is unlikely to receive enough support.

Almost all European countries have legalized abortion, although some maintain medical or regulatory procedures such as short wait times or permission from a parent or guardian. If this trend is any indication, Poland will indeed liberalize its abortion laws – and given the country’s national health care system, procedures will likely be paid for by the state. It will take time, however, and the battles will continue to be hard-fought.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Patrice McMahon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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Patrice McMahon is affiliated with University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Council on Foreign Relations. She receives funding from the National Endowment for Humanities.