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On May Day, Catholics Rally in Support of Polish Women’s Abortion Rights

May 1, 2016

Today, American Catholics and other reproductive rights activists are rallying against a proposed total ban on abortion at the Polish embassy in Washington, DC. Poland has been rocked by protests since Prime Minister Beata Szydło, backed by the nation’s powerful Catholic hierarchy, indicated she would support the ban. The leader of Szydło’s far-right ruling Law & Justice Party — Jarosław Kaczyński — suggested that the majority of his lawmakers also would back a full ban on abortion. The proposed law would include a new statute in the criminal code, “prenatal murder,” which could impose a 3 to 5 year sentence on women who have an abortion, as well as doctors and anyone who assists them.

Polish women already face one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Currently it is only permitted in cases of fetal abnormality, risk to the life or health of the woman and rape or incest, and doctors can be prosecuted for performing an abortion that falls outside these exceptions.  This access is further limited by widespread conscientious objection by providers, Human Rights Watch reports. The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning has stated that between 80,000 to 100,000 women each year decide to terminate a pregnancy, most of which are obtained abroad. A recent poll found that 51 percent of Poles want a more liberal abortion law. The current restrictions on abortion in Poland have been in effect since 1993.

A total abortion ban is currently in place in only two other European countries: Vatican City and Malta. Additionally, in Ireland, Andorra and San Marino, abortion is only permitted if the woman’s life is at risk. The majority of countries in Europe –73 percent– allow abortions for any reason.

“We know that banning abortion does not end abortion, but only endangers women’s lives, and especially the lives of poor women,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice. “As Catholics, we cannot in good conscience turn our backs on women who make the choice to terminate their pregnancies, nor can we ignore the damage caused by policies that make it difficult for women to do so safely. In fact, it is our Catholic faith that compels us at Catholics for Choice to approach the issue of abortion with compassion and understanding. Our Catholic tradition tells us that conscience is the final arbiter in moral decision-making, and at the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for individual conscience. We believe that women can and do make conscience-based decisions to have an abortion and remain good Catholics. We stand in solidarity with Polish women, Catholic and non-Catholic, who deserve access to safe abortion care.”

Poland is plagued by systemic violations of women’s rights and a policy of stigmatizing and shaming those who choose to follow their own conscience against social expectations, but women still exercise a form of silent protest and resistance. This can be seen from the birth rates, which are at an all-time low in Poland, as well as dramatically falling church attendance. Additionally, Facebook groups of citizens troubled by the proposed ban have sprung up, one of which now numbers over 67,000 members.

Supporters of the current ban must collect 100,000 signatures in order for it to be debated and voted on in Parliament. As of April 26, some 30,000 Poles had signed on.

Note to editors: The rally will take place from noon to 1 pm on Sunday, May 1 at 2640 16th Street, NW in Washington, DC. Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe will be available onsite for interviews. Activists will be carrying signs and protesting peacefully.