On Thursday, Polish lawmakers listened to tens of thousands of women who had taken to the streets in protest this week, and rejected a proposed law make all abortions illegal by a 352-58 vote.
Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in European Union, allowing the procedure only in cases of rape, incest, when the mother’s health is in danger, or where the fetus is extremely unhealthy. The proposed law would have criminalized abortion under any circumstance and punished women seeking abortions, and doctors who performed them, with five years in jail.
In the wake of the rejection, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo stated that her government will work to protect human life in other ways, including increased budget spending on families with disabled children, and launching a campaign to "promote the protection of life."
The abortion ban was proposed by a citizen group that collected 450,000 petition signatures and earned the support of the Roman Catholic Church. However, despite the fact that Poland is overwhelmingly Catholic and, in some ways, increasingly conservative, the proposed law was very unpopular with Poles.
Women, particularly those protesting earlier this week, rejected the idea of forcing rape victims to bring their babies to term, and were afraid that women who miscarried would fall under government suspicion. Yet even among the vocal group of opponents who took to the streets earlier this week to protest the proposed abortion ban, there may be little desire to see abortion further legalized in Poland.
“Polish law says that abortion is illegal and a crime,” Michał Łuczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw and the Center for the Thought of John Paul II, told The Christian Science Monitor in April. “In the West it's different, abortion is regarded as a human right.”
The current law allowing abortion in certain extreme circumstances, including rape and when the mother’s health is in danger, was put on the books in 1993, soon after the end of the communist era – meaning that, for many young people, the strict laws are all they have ever known. Therefore, they are more likely to see abortion as morally wrong than older generations who grew up when abortions were legal and commonly performed, according to Dr. Łuczewski.
The result of the vote puts the ruling party, the Law and Justice party (PiS), in a tough spot.
Ultra-conservative and Catholic supporters of PiS wanted to see further restrictions to the 1993 abortion law, although not necessarily a full ban. Thursday's vote puts the party at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, which rejects all abortions, and many of its core voters who also wanted to see further restrictions.
But the party's support also stems from centrist voters and young people attracted by PiS’s promises to level out the economic differences that have plagued the country since the end of the communist era.
"While inequality has actually decreased in the past decade, perceptions are the reverse," the Monitor's Sara Miller Llana and Monika Rębała reported last month:
So PiS policies, such as subsidies for each child, draw supporters who overlook the party’s conservative or nationalist politics, [Rafał Jaros, head of the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Lodzhe] says.
In turn, the PiS administration has alienated critics who feel it is moving Poland – a free-market poster child of post-Soviet Europe – away from the European Union, as it takes control of courts and media.
Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.