(Berlin) – Poland’s government should immediately drop charges against a member of parliament who participated in a pro-choice protest and stop targeting reproductive rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 29, 2022, the Toruń prosecutor’s office charged Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a member of the Left (Lewica) party, with “offending religious feelings” and “malicious interference with religious worship.” Each offense carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. She pleaded not guilty.
“Bringing charges against a lawmaker for a peaceful protest is an undeniably alarming escalation in the Polish government’s efforts to criminalize not just abortion but anyone who openly supports reproductive rights,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Such brash attempts to silence women’s rights activists and ride roughshod over free speech protections shows how fragile all rights are in Poland today.”
On October 25, 2020, alongside her husband, Piotr Wielgus, Scheuring-Wielgus carried a banner in a Toruń church reading, “Woman, you can decide for yourself” to protest a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that essentially eliminated access to legal abortion in Poland. In December 2020, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro initiated a motion to strip Scheuring-Wielgus of her parliamentary legal immunity for the protest.
On November 4, 2022, parliament voted in favor of the motion and the prosecutor pursued charges against Scheuring-Wielgus even though Toruń district court in October 2021 upheld her husband’s acquittal for “offending religious belief” in relation to the same incident.
In October 2020, Poland’s politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is unconstitutional, virtually eliminating access to legal abortion in the country. Previously, over 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions performed annually in Poland were on this ground.
Abortion is now only permitted to safeguard a woman’s life or health or if the pregnancy results from a crime, such as rape or incest. In practice, multiple barriers make it almost impossible for those eligible for a legal abortion to obtain one. Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity.
Since the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has carried out a sustained attack on sexual and reproductive rights, particularly access to abortion, and on abortion rights activists. Abortion activists say the government is increasingly using the law to target them. Justyna Wydrzyńska, of Abortion Dream Team, was charged with assisting someone to have an abortion and illegally “marketing” medication without authorization after allegedly helping a woman get pills for a medication abortion in 2020. Wydrzyńska faces up to three years in prison.
Government data has shown an increase in charges of “offending religious feelings” under Law and Justice. In 2020, the government used this provision to prosecute three activists for posting images of a religious icon with a rainbow halo, often associated with activism for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In January, an appellate court upheld their acquittal.
Under the leadership of Ziobro, who also serves as justice minister, the far-right Solidarna Polska party – part of Poland’s conservative ruling coalition – submitted legislation in October that would amend the criminal code to include publicly insulting or ridiculing the church as an offense punishable by up to two years in prison
The Polish government should drop spurious charges against Scheuring-Wielgus and other women’s and LGBT rights activists, and reverse course to ensure access to safe, legal abortion and other essential reproductive health care, Human Rights Watch said.
Scheuring-Wielgus has been targeted before. Parliament voted in April to remove her legal immunity from prosecution for hanging a poster on the door to Toruń cathedral saying “Baby shoes remember. Stop pedophilia.” It referred to revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in Poland. In November, the national police chief requested removal of another Left party parliamentarian’s immunity for hanging posters supporting the Women’s Strike on office doors of Law and Justice politicians in Iława in November 2020.
Under Law and Justice, attacks on women’s and LGBT rights by high-ranking government officials, ultra-conservative groups, and the media have fostered an increasingly hostile environment for activists and rights defenders. Groups including Abortion Dream Team have been the targets of bomb and death threats.
The European Commission in December 2017 initiated action against Poland under European Union (EU) Treaty article 7 – the provision under which action can be taken against states that put EU values at risk – in response to threats to judicial independence. The Commission should update and broaden its reasoned opinion under article 7 to reflect threats to free speech and the growing impact of the erosion of judicial independence on women’s and LGBT rights, Human Rights Watch said. EU member states should adopt rule-of-law recommendations and vote under article 7 to determine there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Poland.
“European Union leaders should not simply stand by and tolerate a member state targeting elected representatives for exercising free speech and peacefully supporting women’s fundamental human rights,” Margolis said. “The Polish government is only growing bolder in its efforts to undercut women’s rights and rights defenders, and decisive action to stop it can’t wait.”