GENEVA – The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has again expressed serious concerns about Poland’s longstanding failure to ensure that women and girls in Poland can access legal abortion care in practice. In two very important decisions issued last week, the Committee of Ministers has urged Poland to urgently and effectively implement three landmark judgments on women’s access to legal abortion from the European Court of Human Rights and give effect to women’s entitlements to abortion under Polish law. The Committee of Ministers has also instructed its Secretariat to prepare a draft interim resolution for its next examination of these cases, if the Polish authorities fail to make substantial progress.
The Center for Reproductive Rights and the Federation for Women and Family Planning welcome the Committee of Minister’s decisions and join the call to urge Poland to effectively implement the judgements:
“For far too long Poland has ignored its international obligations to guarantee women and girls’ timely access to legal abortion care” said Katrine Thomasen, Senior Legal Adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We welcome the Committee of Ministers’ recognition that the rule of law requires Poland to ensure that women can effectively exercise rights conferred by Polish law. Poland must urgently take action to ensure women’s access to legal reproductive health care.”
The European Court of Human Rights has issued three judgments against Poland regarding women and girls’ access to legal abortion care. The three judgments became final in 2007, 2011, and 2013, and almost 13 years have now passed since the first of these landmark judgments. In each of the judgments, the Court found that women and girls in Poland suffered multiple violations of their human rights as a result of being denied timely access to legal reproductive health care. The Court underlined the “striking discordance” between the right to an abortion under the law in Poland “and the reality of its practical implementation.”
“The Polish government’s continued ignorance of the fact that most women in Poland are unable to access legal abortion care is unacceptable” said Krystyna Kacpura, the Executive Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “The government’s failure to ensure access to reproductive health care that is legal under Polish law puts women’s health and lives at risk. The Committee of Ministers has sent a clear message that this can no longer continue.”
In its decisions, the Committee of Ministers called on Polish authorities to take a series of measures, including: to urgently adopt clear and effective procedures ensuring that women receive adequate information on how to access lawful abortion care; to enact legislation to ensure that women who are refused care by a doctor on grounds of conscience receive information from a healthcare provider on how to obtain these medical services; to immediately reform and speed up the complaint procedure for women who are denied access to legal abortion. The Committee of Ministers stressed that it will examine Poland’s progress again by March 2021 and that failures to adopt these measures will likely lead to adoption of an interim resolution. In exceptional situations, the Committee of Ministers may adopt interim resolutions to express concern about the level of implementation of Court judgments.
The P. and S. case (2013) concerned an adolescent girl who was legally entitled to an abortion in Poland after she became pregnant due to sexual assault. However, the European Court found that the girl and her mother encountered repeated arbitrary and harmful behavior by medical professionals and other state authorities which severely hampered their ability to secure access to legal abortion care.
The R.R. case (2011) concerned a woman who was denied access to legal prenatal testing services and legal abortion care in Poland as a result of obstructive and harmful behavior by medical professionals and personnel. The European Court found that the behavior of the Polish authorities and medical professionals placed her in an extremely vulnerable position and denied her access to health care to which she was entitled under Polish Law.
The Tysiąc case (2007) concerned a woman whose health was placed at risk in the course of a pregnancy and who was entitled to abortion care under Polish law as a result. The European Court found that due to obstructive behavior of medical professionals and the absence of an effective and timely complaints mechanism, she was denied access to abortion care and had no choice but to continue the pregnancy, suffering serious damage to her health as a result.