After mass protests, Poland won't back total abortion ban

The decision appeared to doom an effort to add further limits to what is already one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
Woman shout slogans as they gather in an abortion rights campaigners' demonstration to protest against plans for a total ban on abortion in front of the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) headquarters in Warsaw on Oct. 3.

Lawmakers with Poland's ruling right-wing party voted in a tumultuous parliamentary commission session to reject a proposal for a total ban on abortion.

The decision appeared to doom an effort to add further limits to what is already one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws.

However, the proposal must still go to a vote to the full assembly of the lower house of Parliament on Thursday. Lawmakers will then vote on whether to reject it outright or whether to return it to the commission level for further consideration.

The vote in a chaotic and emotional session on Wednesday evening came after the abortion ban proposal sparked massive protests on Monday, with large numbers of women across the nation donning black, boycotting work and school and demonstrating in the streets.

It came just before the European Parliament held an emotional debate on the situation of women in Poland. Some members called for the need to save unborn lives. Others expressed their solidarity with Polish women, some by wearing black.

"We learned today that for the time being the law seems to be off the table, but I would say that this is no reason for celebration," Dutch lawmaker Sophia in't Veld said, arguing that that current Polish law "still doesn't give women the choice."

In the two days since Monday's protests, Poland's leaders had signaled they wouldn't support the divisive ban.

Members of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, joined by lawmakers from other parties, voted against the proposal. Some said they don't approve of imposing criminal sentences on women who seek abortions. The proposal under discussion calls for prison terms of up to five years for both the women and their doctors.

Law and Justice leader in parliament, Ryszard Terlecki, said after the vote that the ruling party doesn't support the radical draft law.

He said the party is working on a separate draft that would largely leave the current law as it is but limit abortions in cases of Down Syndrome, which are now allowed.

Earlier Wednesday, Jaroslaw Gowin, the minister of science and higher education, said the protests by women have "caused us to think and taught us humility" and that "there will not be a total abortion ban."

Mariusz Dzierzawski, from the committee Stop Abortion, which initiated the proposal, said he hopes it might still return to the commission level. But Dzierzawski didn't sound optimistic, saying the conservative lawmakers had betrayed their voters.

"Murdered children lost," he said.

Ewa Kopacz, an opposition leader, declared a victory for "freedom" and the many women who had taken to Poland's streets.

Poland already outlaws abortions, with exceptions made only for rape, incest, badly damaged fetuses or if the mother's life is at risk. In practice, though, some doctors, citing moral objections, refuse to perform even legal abortions. Polish women seeking abortions typically get them in Germany or other neighboring countries or order abortion pills online.

The anti-abortion initiative gathered 450,000 signatures in support of the total abortion ban and is supported by the Roman Catholic Church.

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