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Two Polish women died after being refused timely abortions. Many Poles are outraged — and protesting.

Antiabortion organizations are powerful in Poland, but abortion rights support is growing

- February 17, 2022

In January 2022, the death of a Polish woman known as “Agnieszka T.” inflamed public debate about Poland’s abortion law. She died a month after doctors delayed aborting twin fetuses, which had separately died in utero over the course of a week. Her family blames Poland’s current abortion law for her death. Another woman, Izabela, died under similar circumstances last September. Their deaths may be spurring protests in support of abortion access. In my research, I have spoken to activists to understand what drives them to protest.

What is the current abortion law in Poland?

Since a 2020 Constitutional Tribunal ruling, Polish doctors can only perform abortions in cases of rape, incest or if the patient’s health is endangered.

Though there is an exception in cases where the patient’s life is at risk, a doctor may spend up to three years in prison if a prosecutor decides that a doctor performed an abortion too early or without justification. Some doctors hesitate or refuse to perform abortions, even when it could save patients’ lives. Thus, even those people who qualify to obtain legal abortions may struggle to get them.

How do Polish citizens feel about the current abortion law?

As in many countries, abortion is a polarizing issue in Poland. Antiabortion activists have gathered enough signatures to force the Polish parliament to debate a bill that would give people who have abortions prison sentences of up to 25 years. These activists are a powerful force in Polish politics. Officials from the Polish Catholic Church have directly and indirectly backed these groups’ positions and actions over time.

Even as antiabortion organizations have demonstrated their clout, abortion rights protests have expanded in scope and size. As research by Agnieszka Graff, a culture and gender studies scholar, underscores: A grass-roots feminist movement has spread since 2016, when a proposal to make all abortions illegal emerged, challenging the abortion law that existed since 1993. At least 430,000 people have protested for abortion rights across 200 Polish cities and towns in recent years.

How do the deaths of Agnieszka T. and Izabela shape abortion attitudes?

Over the past five months, I interviewed about 25 Polish citizens who have protested in support of abortion rights in Warsaw.

Some only began protesting after Izabela’s death. I spoke to protesters who said they feared dying or having a loved one die. Several reported that they wanted to have a child; however, they no longer felt safe being pregnant in Poland. They worried that if they or their partner became pregnant and needed an abortion to save their lives, a doctor might refuse to perform it because of the current abortion law. This fear drove some previously apolitical people to protest. Some protesters with a longer protest history said that the deaths of Agnieszka T. and Izabela have reawakened their activism, which had fallen off during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beyond reinvigorating abortion rights activism in Poland, these two deaths may accelerate the current trend of growing public support for abortion.

Survey data consistently show an increase in pro-choice views over the past 10 years. Data from November 2021 indicate that 74.1 percent of Polish citizens want to change the current abortion law. Of these respondents, 42.8 percent hoped to return to the abortion law that existed before the 2020 Constitutional Tribunal ruling, which allowed for abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal defects, and risk to the pregnant person’s health. The other 31.1 percent said they wanted abortion for any reason during the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy.

Only 10.4 percent of these respondents were content with the current abortion law and only 5.2 percent wanted to further constrain abortion access.

Perhaps more surprisingly, attitudes toward abortion have shifted among supporters of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), the socially conservative ruling party. Data from November 2021 reveal that 28 percent of PiS voters hoped to return to the abortion law that existed before the 2020 ruling. Moreover, 14 percent of PiS voters wished to see laws that would be even more liberal than the one that existed before the 2020 ruling.

Are the two deaths encouraging abortion rights activists to adopt new strategies?

In recent years, Polish abortion rights activists have gone beyond protesting in two ways. One group has focused on gathering signatures for a bill that would make abortion legal for up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy, for any reason. These legal strategies are likely to force parliament to debate liberalizing abortion access. At protests sparked by the two deaths, signature-gatherers are usually present.

Further, more than 1,000 Polish women have sent applications to challenge the 2020 abortion law in front of the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR has grouped some of these applications into categories to try the cases. These women argue that this legislation gravely harms them and violates their human rights.

Will these deaths affect support for the Polish Catholic Church?

These protests and court cases may affect the Roman Catholic Church’s influence in Polish society. Political scientist Anna Grzymała-Busse’s research finds that churches lose moral authority when they openly partner with a political party. By working openly with the ruling party PiS to push restrictive abortion policies, the Polish Catholic Church may lose support.

Indeed, trust in the Catholic Church has steadily decreased in recent decades. One survey even showed that 50 percent of Polish respondents believed that Pope Francis should dismiss the entire Polish episcopate, although that was largely in response to the coverup of pedophilia scandals within the church.

Furthermore, abortion rights activists have increasingly confronted the Catholic Church. In recent years, they have protested in front of churches, disrupted religious services and graffitied churches.

If Polish citizens continue to view the Catholic Church as a key partner of the PiS, these actions may continue, and more people may support these protest tactics.

Thus far, many Polish citizens are blaming the current abortion law for the deaths of at least two women. More people continue to join the abortion rights movement and to adopt those views. The women’s deaths will likely shape the future of both the political scene and the role of the Catholic Church in Poland.

Courtney Blackington is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina, a Fulbright U.S. student researcher and a Title VIII Critical Language and Research Scholar.

The views expressed in this article are those of Courtney Blackington and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the State Department or any of its partner organizations.