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Demand for Action as Poland Tramples Women’s Rights

European Commission Should Hold Government Accountable for Violating Fundamental Rights

Women's rights activists, holding posters of the Women's Strike action, protest further tightening of Poland's restrictive abortion law in front of the parliament building in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, October 27, 2020. © 2020 Czarek Sokolowski via AP Photo

The message was clear at this week’s European Parliament hearing on Poland’s near-ban on abortion: the European Commission should act decisively to protect the lives and rights of women and girls and stop erosion of the values on which the European Union stands.

Marta Lempart, co-founder of the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement leading Polish protests, told the Commission, “I am not asking for your concern. I am not asking for declarations. I demand action and that is my role and my right. I am a European citizen. Your duty, first, is to me.”

Members of the European Parliament spelled out how heightened restrictions on legal abortion in Poland, already home to one of Europe’s most restrictive laws, defy international human rights law and are indisputably intertwined with rule of law violations that should have swift repercussions for Poland’s government. They rightly denounced the ruling Law and Justice party’s use of the politically-influenced Constitutional Tribunal to bypass proper parliamentary procedures in eliminating legal grounds for abortion.

As Lempart said, “If we lose the rule of law, if we lose judiciary independence, we lose everything.”

The Commission itself is among authoritative bodies that have condemned the Tribunal’s lack of independence and even triggered Article 7, the EU mechanism to address governments breaching core EU values.

But when asked if the Commission will act instead of just talk, Equalities Commissioner Helena Dalli again fell short of indicating real engagement on accountability for Polish authorities. In the past year alone, Poland’s government has pushed forward bills to completely ban abortion and criminalize sex education, cracked down on LGBT activists, and revived threats to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a regional violence against women treaty.

Without definitive action, the Commission is telling women across Europe that their rights to health, freedom from cruel and inhumane treatment, bodily autonomy, and privacy, are secondary. It also underscores the Commission’s hesitancy to respond firmly when a member state repeatedly violates fundamental rights and EU values; this is a risky move when some European governments appear to view Poland as an example rather than a warning.

Protesters in Poland persist despite daily abuse, harassment and detention. Lempart faces charges that could result in up to eight years in prison. She pleaded to Commission members, “We, the people, urge you to fight for us.” 

The Commission should quickly heed her call.

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