Poland’s Tusk tries to roll back one of Europe’s strictest abortion bans

PRENZLAU, Germany — Only 30 miles separate the two clinics where gynecologist Maria Kubisa works, but what’s legal at her clinic on this side of the border would be criminal at the clinic back in Poland.

So women have been crossing over to seek help from Kubisa on this side, especially in the past three years, since a Polish court backed by a ring-wing government imposed a near-ban on abortion.

“In most cases, the women are around the age of 40 and are carrying a fetus with abnormalities,” she said, pulling out an image from a recent ultrasound. “Twelve weeks. Six centimeters long. No brain, no arms, no legs. The intestines are outside the abdomen.”

Like millions of Poles who supported the end of right-wing rule, Kubisa is hoping the country’s new centrist government will close the gap between Poland and most of the rest of Europe.

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On abortion, Prime Minister Donald Tusk has promised to replace one of Europe’s strictest policies with new legislation — not only allowing the return of early-term abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities, but ensuring legal and safe abortion care through 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The obstacles, though, remain formidable, with divisions in the ruling coalition, a veto-wielding president allied with the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, and an entrenched constitutional court appointed by the previous government.

For some Poles, the elation of last fall’s election is already giving way to frustration and doubt about whether the change of government can succeed in washing away — or at least diluting — a decade of right-wing policies.

Jubilation and high expectations as Poland marks end of right-wing rule

Tusk introduces an abortion rights bill

When Tusk’s Civic Coalition group this week introduced its abortion rights bill, he warned it might not have enough support to pass.

“Today it looks like there is no such majority, but there is definitely a majority to change the status quo,” Tusk told reporters on Thursday.

During the campaign he pledged to liberalize abortion within his first 100 days in office, which sets a deadline of March 21. This week, he said a vote was unlikely before April.

The draft legislation states: “A pregnant person has the right to health care in the form of termination of pregnancy until the end of the 12th week of its duration.” Abortion would be allowed beyond that period in cases that present a threat to the woman’s life or health, involve birth defects or resulted from rape or incest.

The bill stipulates that all providers that receive public funding for pregnancy care must offer abortions — and designate substitute doctors if any individuals refuse under the “conscience clause.”

A separate draft law introduced this week seeks to restore prescription-free access to the morning-after pill.

While the pill legislation is expected to get parliamentary approval, the chances for the broader bill are less favorable.

Marek Sawicki, a prominent figure in the junior coalition partner Third Way, told Polish media on Thursday that he was part of “a large group of MPs who will definitely not support this bill.” Some Third Way leaders have proposed a national referendum on the question.

Some on the left, meanwhile, want to go further and decriminalize abortion assistance, throwing out a 1997 law that makes helping someone get a nonpermissible abortion punishable by up to three years in prison.

Even if both Civic Coalition bills make it through parliament, they could be vetoed by President Andrzej Duda or rejected by the constitutional court.

Pregnant women and health-care providers remain in limbo

Polish women are left in a state of uncertainty. In the past three years, prosecutors have investigated six cases in which pregnant women died after doctors refused to terminate their pregnancies. For someone who gets pregnant now, will the policy be different in 12 weeks?

Health-care providers are living in limbo, too — especially those caught up in the crackdown on illegal abortions encouraged by the last government.

Last spring, in a landmark case, a Polish court convicted activist Justyna Wydrzynska of illegally providing abortion pills and sentenced her to eight months of community service. Her lawyers appealed her conviction in May and are still waiting for a court date. She said she has low expectations for dramatic changes to Poland’s abortion policies before the 2025 presidential election, when Duda’s term is up.

“As an activist, I’m happy to see discussions in parliament,” said Wydrzynska, who continues to help women obtain abortions. “But as a normal person, there are discussions, but nothing is happening. It’s very frustrating.”

Also pending is the case of a 30-year-old man in southern Poland who pleaded guilty to helping his partner bring about a miscarriage by obtaining prescription painkillers through a friend. A judge adjourned the trial on its first day in November, noting that regulations could soon change.

Polish court convicts activist of providing abortion pills in landmark case

For Kubisa, 58, change can’t come fast enough. She said she stopped seeing pregnant women at her clinic in Szczecin, Poland, after the court ruling three years ago. “I couldn’t make these women carry a fetus with severe defects to full term,” she said. She began working in part-time exile, traveling back to Poland once a week to deal with other gynecological appointments.

Then in November — after the election but before Tusk took office — she was charged with helping five women obtain abortion pills, in violation of the 1997 law. Prosecutors said the charges were based on witness statements, information from her mobile phone and seized documents.

Kubisa denies the accusations. She posits that when armed government agents raided her Polish clinic a year ago, they took notebooks used in her practice in Germany. Human Rights Watch grouped that raid among the “speculative investigations and overbroad searches” pursued by the previous government to advance a political agenda and create a climate of fear.

How Poland ended up with one of Europe’s strictest abortion policies

For much of the second half of the 20th century, abortion was legal under Poland’s communist government. When communist rule ended in 1989, the Catholic Church began pushing for stricter abortion laws.

“The Church entered the post-communist period with a lot of political capital. It obviously had an agenda,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, a Polish politics expert at the University of Sussex.

In 1993, the legislature approved a law banning abortions except for in cases of incest or rape, if the mother’s health was at risk or if the fetus was diagnosed with a severe birth defect.

“It’s often referred to as the ‘abortion compromise,’ although actually the compromise produced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe,” Szczerbiak said.

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When PiS came to power in 2015, it sought to limit abortion even further. Its attempt to legislate a near-ban was rejected amid mass protests. So PiS lawmakers sought a ruling from the Constitutional Tribunal, and the court, stacked with PiS loyalists, struck down one of the three pillars of the abortion compromise. Severe fetal abnormalities would no longer be considered a sufficient justification.

How abortion became a prominent election issue

The court ruling was highly unpopular, triggering the largest protests in Poland since the fall of communism.

Many surveys suggest that support for liberalizing the country’s abortion laws grew while PiS was in power. That may be partly a reaction to the right-wing push for further restrictions. It may also reflect that Poland was rapidly secularizing over the past decade, Szczerbiak said. He added that many people voicing support for abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy indicate a reluctance when asked if those abortions should be allowed for any reason.

Polish demonstrators disrupt Sunday Mass as some of Europe’s tightest abortion laws get tighter

In any event, although Tusk did not attempt to dismantle Poland’s abortion restrictions the last time he served as prime minister, from 2007 to 2014, his party invoked the restoration of abortion rights as a core rallying point in this past election, and analysts say that stance helped bring the new government to power. Even outgoing PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki assessed that seeking the court ruling on abortion had been a mistake.

Abortion rights activists are now demanding that Tusk’s government stick to its election promises.

Kubisa said she hopes to see abortion made legal again for fetal abnormalities. Ultimately, she would also like the 1997 law criminalizing abortion assistance overturned.

“Of course that would be a relief for me personally, but also for women,” she said. “Right now it feels like nobody wants to help them. People are scared to help them, and the younger generation has been put off my profession.”

De Vynck reported from Brussels.

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