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A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during the Women's Day Manifa march in Warsaw, Poland calling for action on climate change, gender equality, access to legal abortion, and sexual education in schools, March 8, 2020. © 2020 Sipa USA via AP
UPDATE: On April 16, 2020, the Polish Parliament sent both the “Stop Abortion” bill and the “Stop Pedophilia” bill to committee for “further work.” This decision means neither bill has been rejected, but further consideration has been postponed indefinitely and both could potentially be re-introduced at a later date.

(London) – Poland’s Parliament will consider regressive legislation this week that would restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights and put the lives and well-being of women and adolescents at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation is scheduled for reading on April 15 or 16, 2020 as the country remains under a COVID-19-related state of emergency that bans group gatherings.

The bills under consideration were originally introduced in March 2018 and October 2019, and have since been stalled or not moved forward under the Parliament elected in November 2019. Both were met by street protests.

“Given its track record of undercutting the rule of law, it is fitting that the government would move to pass abusive laws when the public demonstrations that have met these laws before are prohibited,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Polish government’s focus during the pandemic should be to protect people’s health and rights, not diminish them.”

The “Stop Abortion” bill would amend the criminal code, eliminating legal access to abortion in cases of severe or fatal fetal anomaly, further limiting what is already one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. The bill was introduced in March 2018 and supported by high-level politicians of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party. Its approval by a parliamentary committee led to mass protests, but the bill stalled as conservative parliament members requested a Constitutional Tribunal ruling on the legality of permitting abortion in cases of severe anomaly that threatens a fetus’ life.

The “Stop Pedophilia” bill would amend the criminal code to criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” People and organizations providing sexuality education or information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including teachers, outreach workers, authors, and health care personnel, fear the bill could land them in prison for up to three years for doing their jobs. Parliament approved the bill during a first reading in October 2019, and it could expire if not considered by the newly elected parliament before mid-May, but had seen no progress until now.

Both bills are “popular initiatives,” requiring 100,000 signatures for parliamentary consideration and were originally introduced in 2018 and 2019 but then stalled before the pandemic. They are drafted and backed by right-wing groups, including the conservative, anti-abortion, and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture. Both bills were submitted for this week’s session by Elzbieta Witek, parliament speaker, a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS).

Under Poland’s current law, abortion is only legal to safeguard the life or health of women, in situations of severe or fatal fetal anomaly, or if a pregnancy results from rape or another criminal act such as incest. Even when abortion is legal, multiple barriers limit women’s and girls’ access in practice, including widespread invocation of the “conscience clause” that permits medical providers to refuse care based on personal or religious belief. Laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not reduce or eliminate women’s need for abortion, but rather drive them to seek abortion through means that may put their lives and health at risk. A group of UN experts previously called on Poland’s parliament to reject the “Stop Abortion” bill.

Poland’s government has blocked efforts to provide adolescents with comprehensive sexuality education that is consistent with international standards. Rather, its “Preparation for Family Life” curriculum spreads misinformation that can have negative long-term health impacts, perpetuates harmful stereotypes about gender roles and sexuality, and promotes an anti-rights and anti-LGBT agenda. The ruling Law and Justice party has misrepresented comprehensive sexuality education and efforts to advance gender equality as attacks on ‘traditional’ family values and threats to children, using such arguments to undermine women’s and LGBT rights groups. In November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing the “Stop Pedophilia” bill’s introduction.

Other government efforts to further restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights have been met by public protest, including mass demonstrations beginning in October 2016 that became known as #CzarnyProtest (Black Protest) and #StrajkKobiet (Women’s Strike), which led to rejection of a bill that would have enacted a total abortion ban.

In recent weeks, the government also introduced criminal code amendments, ostensibly to facilitate COVID-19 response, including significantly increased criminal penalties for people living with HIV who knowingly expose others to the infection, raising potential maximum prison terms from three years to eight. Criminalization of people with HIV violates rights and undermines efforts to curb spread of the infection and ensure access to treatment and often targets vulnerable and minority groups, including LGBT people.

Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has attempted to roll back women’s rights, including through smear campaigns, systematic defunding, and other attacks on women’s rights organizations and activists. The ruling party’s crusade against so-called “gender ideology” has gained traction and been used to galvanize support for measures that target women’s and LGBT rights and smear women’s and LGBT rights activists.

In the past five years, the Polish government dominated by Law and Justice has actively undermined the rule of law and eroded the independence of the judiciary, and interfered with media freedom. It has refused environmental activists entry to Poland to attend United Nations climate talks. In 2016, parliament rejected a bill that would have increased protection of marginalized groups and identities by including gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and age as potential grounds for “hate speech.” Organizations working on women’s rights, LGBT rights, and migration have faced harassment.

Poland’s Parliament should reject the Stop Abortion and Stop Pedophilia bills and uphold sexual and reproductive health and rights in accordance with international law. This includes the right to access safe and legal abortion and to receive accurate, evidence-based information about health and sexuality.

The European Commission and other EU member states should make the best possible use of tools available, including the Article 7 procedures, to address the Polish government’s policies on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Article 7 under the Treaty of the European Union provides for preventive action and possible sanctions, including suspension of a member state’s voting rights within the Council of the EU if that country violates the EU’s founding values, such as the rule of law.

“Undermining access to abortion and comprehensive sexuality education doesn’t protect anyone, and only raises the prospect of dire health consequences for Poland’s people,” Margolis said. “The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to push through dangerous legislation.”

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