Polish police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who gathered near the house of the country’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to protest against a court ruling that paves the way for an almost total ban on abortion.
Poland already has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, but on Thursday the Constitutional Tribunal said a 1993 law allowing abortions in cases of severe foetal disabilities was unconstitutional.
Once the ruling comes into force, abortions will only be allowed in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s health or life are under threat. Such cases accounted for just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions that took in Polish hospitals in 2019.
In the wake of the ruling a few hundred protesters gathered outside the constitutional tribunal before marching to the house of Mr Kaczynski, the founder of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, carrying placards with messages such as “shame”.
“I felt weak at the knees when I heard about the verdict,” said Zuza, a lecturer from Warsaw who took part in the protest which lasted into the early hours of Friday.
“It is completely inhuman. It affects thousands of women in Poland in a very tangible way, and is a cruel torture.”
Police said later on Friday that 15 people had been detained. Further demonstrations are due to take place on Friday and Saturday, despite a ban on public gatherings introduced by the government to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Since coming to power in 2015, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice has made promoting traditional Catholic values, which it regards as threatened by western liberal principles, a crucial part of its political platform.
Over the past 18-months attacks on the LGBT rights movement have become a centrepiece of the party’s rhetoric, and it backed away from a previous attempt to tighten abortion rules in 2016 only after huge street protests.
Women’s rights groups estimate that even under existing legislation only about 10 per cent of Polish hospitals perform legal abortions. Around 80,000-120,000 women are thought to have abortions each year, many of them abroad.
Thursday’s decision was welcomed by anti-abortion campaigners. Kaja Godek, from the group Stop Abortion, said Poland was now “an example for Europe, for the world”.
“We have confirmation that selection and killing of children suspected of genetic defects or of disease is not compatible with the Polish constitution,” she said.
“The right to life was granted, the right to life was recognised.”
However, women’s rights groups and opposition politicians reacted with horror to the ruling, and criticised the announcement of such a controversial decision in the middle of a pandemic.
“From today, Polish women are living in a female hell . . . and doomed to torture, suffering and pain,” Barbara Nowacka, from the main opposition group Civic Coalition, wrote on Twitter.
Maria Lewandowska, a researcher into reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the decision was likely to have a disproportionate impact on poorer women.
“This will mainly be a tragedy for the underprivileged and those who don’t have the funds to go abroad where they could get good quality prenatal care and an abortion if that’s needed,” she said, adding that the ruling would not just affect parents whose baby was diagnosed with conditions such as Down syndrome, but also those with more severe and lethal conditions.
“There is a range of foetal abnormalities that warrant, or used to warrant, a legal abortion in Poland. In some cases, these are babies without brains, with the brains not divided into hemispheres, with Edward’s syndrome . . . This ruling will mean forcing women to go through the pain of delivery and the pain of seeing their child suffer and die within a few days of birth.”