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Poland: Debate Flares Over Strict Abortion Law

While the U.S. this week marks 30 years of abortion as a constitutional right, debate on the topic has been heating up in Poland. Poland's abortion law is among the strictest in Europe and stands in stark contrast to the liberal legislation in place in many of Poland's neighbors. Campaigners -- and some politicians -- are pushing for the law to be eased. Others, including church leaders, want the European Union to safeguard Poland's antiabortion stance when the country joins the bloc in 2004.

Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A woman finds she is unexpectedly pregnant, and it's unwelcome news. Should she be allowed to have an abortion? If so, under what circumstances? And until how late in her pregnancy?

These are dilemmas that many countries have tried to settle in law -- with widely different results. In Europe, policies range from Ireland's total ban to easy availability in countries like the Netherlands.

The issue might be most divisive in the United States, where pressure is mounting to scale back abortion rights guaranteed 30 years ago this week in the Supreme Court's landmark Roe versus Wade decision. But even in Europe, debate over the issue occasionally flares up.

In Poland, campaigners are pushing to ease the country's antiabortion law -- one of the strictest in Europe. They've been boosted by recent statements from some top politicians in the governing Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).

Marek Dyduch, the party's general secretary, touched off the debate late last year when he said the party would push for wider access to abortion. The country's new health minister is also in favor of liberalizing the law. And parliamentary speaker Marek Borowski this weekend called for a referendum on the subject.

Poland is that rare case of a country that restricted its previously liberal communist-era abortion law. At present, a woman is allowed to terminate her pregnancy only under strict conditions -- in cases of rape, for example, or if her life is in danger or the fetus is severely malformed. The law was briefly eased in the mid-1990s, but the decision was later reversed in a court ruling.

Wanda Nowicka is director of Poland's Federation for Women and Family Planning and an advocate of wider access to abortion. "Basically we believe that women in Poland should have the right to make free decisions concerning reproduction and sexuality. The law which should be in place should reflect this principle of freedom of decision," she said.

Nowicka's supporters point to what they say are the many illegal abortions still carried out in Poland each year despite the ban. Many women also travel to the Czech Republic for legal abortions -- just like the thousands of Irish girls and women who go to the U.K. each year for terminations.

Nowicka says there is public support for a more liberal law, though it has declined in recent years. But she says many people won't speak up because support for the Catholic Church -- which vehemently opposes abortion -- is also strong.

Poland's strict regulations stand in stark contrast to laws in neighboring countries.

Monica Pini is communications officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation's European network, which is based in Brussels. She notes that Central and Eastern Europe has some of the world's most liberal abortion laws. Most allow terminations on demand for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and up to 22 weeks for health or social reasons.

Pini said Europe in general is moving toward even more liberalization. France two years ago widened access to abortions, and Switzerland last year voted to decriminalize the procedure. But, she added, there is growing antiabortion sentiment as well. "If we look at some of the things voted recently in France, in Switzerland, it seems that we're moving toward an opening of choice for women more and more. But we would have to say that the trend is that the opposition -- the religious opposition, particularly -- to abortion is stronger, stronger than ever. There are many conservative governments right now in Europe, like in Italy, that are trying to move against some of the victories of the past," Pini said.

Of course, that's not how those on the other side of the debate see things. And that's the difficulty with discussing abortion. Those who advocate wider access to abortion call themselves "pro-choice," as they emphasize the woman's right to choose. But groups opposed to abortion emphasize the fetus's right to life and refer to themselves as "pro-life."

Michal Kaminski is a deputy for Poland's opposition Law and Justice party. He says the country's current abortion law is liberal enough. And he says it's bad timing to call for a debate on the law now, as the country gears up for June's all-important referendum on joining the European Union. "The abortion law and all this stuff, it's dangerous. Because if you call a referendum about abortion you will wake up all the rightists, all the conservative movements in Poland, which could also be anti-European. So if you want to win the referendum about [European Union membership], we don't need some kind of referendum about abortion," he said.

But like it or not, EU membership and the abortion debate are becoming entangled. Church leaders in Poland like Cardinal Jozef Glemp have called for a clause in the country's accession treaty that would guarantee Poland's independence in deciding on abortion.

Malta, another candidate for EU membership, has negotiated a similar clause for its own ban on abortion. And current member Ireland has a similar safeguard as well.

Certainly, Nowicka and other campaigners face an uphill battle. Prime Minister Leszek Miller this week squelched the hopes of some of his party colleagues when he ruled out a relaxation of the law during the current parliament.