Poland is one of a select few countries in Europe where access to abortion remains extremely limited: it’s a crime to terminate a pregnancy except in cases of risk to the mother’s life or health, severe fetal abnormality, or rape. In Europe, only Ireland and Malta have more restrictive laws.
The United Nations has taken Poland to task for its abortion laws and practices, and is likely to do so again today. After a visit in 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health called for the government to remove barriers to safe abortion. A UN expert body, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, also criticized Poland’s abortion record in 2007. At a meeting today with Polish officials, this committee will undoubtedly focus on the lack of progress on access to safe, legal abortion.
Local groups in Poland note that women seeking abortion face stigma, intimidation, and misinformation from healthcare providers and clergy. Poland’s “conscience clause” under article 39 of the Doctor and Dentist Professions Act is a particular concern. Medical personnel may decline to perform abortion on the grounds that it conflicts with their personal values or beliefs. The law states that personnel must refer a woman to an alternate doctor or facility where she has a real possibility of obtaining services, but local women’s groups report that such referrals are often not made.
The conscience clause seems to be gaining ground: in May 2014, 3,000 people, mainly medical professionals, signed a “Declaration of Faith” asserting the “primacy” of religious over state law and saying they consider abortion and other reproductive services to be against their faith. Poland’s Catholic bishops endorsed the declaration. Donald Tusk, then-prime minister, reminded Polish medical practitioners that the obligation to provide comprehensive health care supersedes individual beliefs.
Such comments are welcome but insufficient. Poland’s new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, should act quickly to safeguard women’s access to safe and legal abortion, even with the “conscience clause” in force. The state should ensure availability of doctors who do not invoke the conscience clause, and monitor referrals to other providers by those who are unwilling to perform abortions. The government should also institute a clear and rapid appeals process for women denied abortion, as mandated by the European Court of Human Rights.
“Conscientious objection” should not mean the evisceration of women’s human rights.