POLAND: ruling party exploits the current health crisis to undermine women and young people’s safety

Article originally published on IPPF, 14 April 2020 – accessible here

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, bills banning abortion care in practice and endangering young people by criminalizing relationship and sexuality education are set to be voted in the Polish Sejm on 15 and 16 April 2020.

The ultra-conservative ruling party is taking advantage of the enormous hardship faced by Polish people to continue its relentless series of attacks on women and young people’s safety and wellbeing. People are sick, domestic violence is growing, one million jobs have been lost, yet the government adds to the burden of lack of social supports.

The Polish law on abortion care is one of the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is only lawful to safeguard the life or health of women, in situations of severe fetal anomaly or where the pregnancy results from rape or incest. In practice, 98% of legal abortions in Poland are performed on severe fetal anomaly grounds. During COVID-19 times, with travel restriction in place, hospitals overwhelmed by the health emergency, many from the medical staff already denying care based on personal beliefs or convenience, women’s options are drastically reduced.

This proposed bill would result in a total abortion ban in practice, forcing women and families to go through pregnancies against their will in case of fatal fetal abnormality at a time of dramatic economic instability with no social support from the state. This shows how little women’s lives and dignity are valued by the Polish ruling class. The bill would also gag doctors by restricting what they can say to their patients about the condition of the fetus, violating patients’ rights to information. The change proposed by this bill is permanent and will place women’s health and lives at risk.

“We know that when women and girls cannot access abortion care, in their desperation, they will resort to taking matters into their own hands, often with tragic consequences. Domestic violence is rising sharply, and families are stretched to the limits of their endurance. It is the moment when we most need to ensure we provide all the care that our societies need” said Caroline Hickson, IPPF EN Regional Director.

The second bill would result in a complete ban on teaching relationship and sexuality education, sharing evidence-based information on the Internet, as well as forbidding doctors from providing contraceptive care to young people under 18. Those who work to protect young people by giving them information about healthy relationships, intimate life and prevention of violence could face a 3-year prison sentence under this draft bill. The only source of information young people could end up with is pornography and religious doctrines.

UNESCO guidelines underline that education addressing equality between men and women and focusing on consent can reduce intimate partner violence. Why is this not a priority when violence against women is endemic and we know is even aggravated during the lockdown?

“The timing of these bills is dodgy. As public protests cannot take place due to the measures put in place to fight the pandemic, women are silenced. The medieval forces behind these proposals know massive protests would have been organized across the country to fight these draconian bills. Enough is enough” said Irene Donadio, IPPF EN Senior Adviser.

We call on Members of Poland’s Parliament to listen to the voices of women and families across Poland, to protect women’s safety and young people’s health and to reject these regressive bills. The Polish government must prioritise people’s health and wellbeing, democracy and the rule of law.

Exploiting the health crisis to attack women’s health care is reckless, cruel and a guarantee of aggravated human suffering.