Poland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, may consider easing its restrictive prohibitions on abortion when a new bill comes before parliament this week.
Under the proposed bill, which was crafted by the leftist Palikot Movement, pregnant women would be able to undergo abortion until the twelfth week of pregnancy. The legislation would also guarantee free or subsidized contraception and upgrade the quality of sex education in Polish schools.
Abortion is legal across the rest of Europe, excluding the island of Malta, Oreland and Andorra.
According to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, or CRR, Poland has one of the lowest rates of modern contraceptive use in Europe -- 19 percent, versus 81 percent in the UK, 38.9 percent in Italy and 29.5 percent in Romania.
Pro-life advocates in Poland, including the church and right-wing lawmakers, are expected to oppose any changes in the current law, which permits abortions in very few cases, including pregnancies that endanger the life and health of the woman or where such a state was caused by rape.
Pro-choice supporters counter that the difficult climate in Poland forces thousands of pregnant women into getting illegal abortions underground, outside of the law, where health risks may abound. Some Poles travel to other countries in the EU, like Germany or the Czech Republic, to have abortions but often at great financial cost.
“Pregnant women have been denied crucial health care services [in Poland] due to the fact that the current law on abortion is unclear and lacks government regulation,” CRR noted. “It is also not uncommon that health care providers deny women access to legal abortion based on their personal or religious objections.”
The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, which supports abortion rights, estimates that as many as 200,000 illegal abortions are carried out in the country every year (generating $95 million in fees for doctors).
“We believe reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive health care are vital for prosperity and societal progress," Krystyna Kacpura, executive director of the federation, said in a statement. "We strongly urge Parliament to support the ... bill. If adopted, the bill would yield widespread positive outcomes for women's health and well-being and the well-being of the Polish population in its entirety.”
Still, opposition to abortion remains entrenched in Poland, perhaps more so than any other European nation. In 2011, the lower house of parliament approved a comprehensive ban on abortion by nearly a two-to-one margin (although this radical ban did not become law).
It was not always like this in Poland -- under communism, abortions were legal and easily available. The Christian Science Monitor reported that in 1981 Poland recorded about 230,000 legal abortions. By 1993, after the fall of communism and the resurgence of the Catholic Church in public affairs, abortions became nearly impossible for the average Polish woman.
“Guaranteeing safe abortion services, prenatal testing, contraceptive access and comprehensive sex education is not only good public health policy, but also essential to protecting women's and adolescents’ fundamental human rights,” said Johanna Westeson, regional director for Europe at CRR.
“We urge Polish members of parliament to support the bill and this historic step forward for women’s rights.”