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Women’s Rights and Religious Leaders Urge President of Poland to Reform Abortion Laws

February 19, 2003

International coalition letter supporting Polish women is unprecedented

More than 150 leaders from 46 countries from every region of the world today expressed their concerns in a letter to the president of Poland over his recent statements that indicate he is unlikely to consider reform of the country’s current ban on most legal abortions.

The groups signing the letter to President Aleksander Kwasniewski represent a unique coalition of international women’s, reproductive rights, human rights and religious groups who support women’s organizations in Poland who want the president to reform the law. Among the religious groups who signed the letter are members of Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant and Jewish groups who are urging the president to maintain his commitment to reform the law as he voiced earlier in his presidency. Also signing the letter were a number of members of European parliament.

The letter reads, in part, “As a European country-and future member of the European Union-that signed the Cairo Platform for Action, Poland is committed to addressing the health impact of unsafe abortion as a major public health concern. As we are sure you are aware, there are an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 abortions per year in Poland. In the year 2001, only 124 abortions were performed legally.”

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice and leader of this effort, said, “We strongly support the women of Poland who want to see their country’s restrictive abortion laws reflect the reality that women, particularly poor women, confront. We affirm the rights of Polish women to be able to make this most personal decision based on their individual circumstances. We hope President Kwasniewski will support a change in Poland’s abortion law and recommend that it be modified to respect individual conscience and to preserve women’s lives.”

Kissling noted that Poland’s current law forces women in need of abortions to obtain expensive and potentially dangerous “underground abortions,” or travel overseas to obtain abortions. This exacts a particular hardship on poor women, especially those who live in rural communities.

“The letter signed by so many international leaders, including religious ones, is very important from the Polish perspective because it shows that Polish clergy has no monopoly on morality and truth and that other religious voices are more sensitive to realities of women’s lives,” said Wanda Nowicka, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning of Poland. “It is really a shame that women in Poland are experiencing more solidarity, understanding and compassion from the international community than from Polish decision-makers who should be speaking on our behalf and who are very well aware, although choose to ignore it, that women’s reproductive rights are seriously violated.”

Nowicka said a poll showed that 49 % of Poles wanted the abortion law relaxed and only 37% were against it. This is despite the fact 90% of the country’s citizens consider themselves Catholic.

In 1993, significant changes concerning women’s reproductive rights were introduced in Poland. The Polish Parliament introduced an anti-abortion law that meant that women in difficult life conditions, including financial situations, could not legally have abortions. The anti-abortion law was liberalized briefly in 1996 to allow abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy if “a woman is in hard life conditions or in difficult personal situation.” The law was restricted again in 1997 and this provision regarding abortion on social grounds was withdrawn by the Parliament elected in 1997.

At present abortion on social grounds is banned. According to the law, abortion is legal in the following cases only: when pregnancy constitutes a threat to life or to the health of the mother, which is confirmed by the doctor other than the one involved in the abortion; prenatal examination indicate heavy, irreversible damage of the embryo or incurable life-threatening illness; there is justified suspicion, confirmed by a prosecutor, that the pregnancy is a result of an illegal act such as rape or incest. Also, a doctor who performs illegal abortion is subject to the punishment of up to three years of prison.

Poland is one of 10 countries seeking to become part of the European Union in May 2004. Membership in the EU is considered favorable because it enhances a country’s political, economic and social stability. Should Poland join, it would be only the second country in the EU where abortion is illegal. Some observers believe Kwasniewski is willing to put women’s reproductive rights on the back burner to avoid a discussion of abortion at this time.