Europe Update: Abortion Rights at Risk in Poland and Slovakia

11.06.2020

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Recent developments in Poland and Slovakia demonstrate the ongoing struggle to defend abortion rights against coordinated and systemic attacks on sexual and reproductive rights across the world.  

Poland  

Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and access to abortion in the country is extremely limited—and often practically impossible. Poland is one of only two countries in the European Union that does not allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. A recent ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal will make abortion care even more difficult to access.  

On October 22, 2020, the Tribunal ruled that abortion on grounds of severe or fatal fetal impairment is unconstitutional.  As a result of this ruling, which will take effect once published in Journal of Laws, abortion will only be permitted in situations of risk to the life or health of a pregnant woman, or if a pregnancy results from sexual assault. 

However, because it is almost impossible in practice for women in these circumstances to obtain access to legal abortion in Poland, the Tribunal ruling is akin to the introduction of a near-total ban on abortion. If the decision takes effect, women’s health and wellbeing will be gravely harmed. 

The case, which was filed by conservative lawmakers in the country’s parliament, is only the latest in a long line of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish Government lawmakers. Over the past few years there have been waves of legislative attempts to introduce near-total bans on abortion in the country.  

At the same time, the rule of law and independence of the judiciary has been significantly weakened in Poland in recent years. The Constitutional Tribunal—the top court overseeing the compliance with Poland’s constitution—is now controlled by the nation’s ruling Law and Justice party and is no longer an independent or impartial court. This decision demonstrates that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is unable to undertake impartial constitutional review of legislation in light of Poland’s human rights obligations.  

Ahead of the Tribunal’s hearing on the case, the Center, together with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, expressed concerns about the impartiality of the Tribunal and mandated expert observers to monitor the proceedings. As the Center’s Regional Director for Europe Leah Hoctor explained, restrictions like these—which roll back women’s rights to critical sexual and reproductive health care—violate Poland’s obligations under international human rights law.  

“Women’s human rights and access to reproductive health care are under siege in Poland. Legal prohibitions on abortion serve no purpose except to deny women access to the healthcare they need and harm their health and wellbeing. Polish legislators must act now to bring the country’s law into line with other EU countries and ensure that women in Poland can access abortion care when they need it,” Hoctor said.  

Poland has long had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. While 25 of the 27 European member states allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds, only Poland and Malta do not. Even in situations in which abortion is legal, multiple barriers severely limit access to care. Women are often forced to travel to other countries in order to access safe and legal care or obtain clandestine abortion in Poland. 

The Tribunal’s latest restriction has sparked a series of massive protests across Poland, as people fight back against the harmful ruling. The Center, together with over 190 civil society organizations from across the world, have called on the Polish authorities to respect the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest.  

“We express our deep admiration for the courageous and tireless efforts of those defending the rights of women and the rule of law in Poland. Threatening peaceful protestors with violence and prosecution is unacceptable. The Polish Government must respect the rights of freedom of assembly and peaceful protest,” said Hoctor.  

 
Slovakia  

On October 20, 2020, the Slovak Parliament rejected harmful legislation that would have rolled back women’s reproductive rights in the country. The proposal would have subjected women to new harmful and medically unnecessary requirements prior to abortion, including by extending the 48-hour mandatory waiting period to 96 hours.  

Earlier this fall, the Center submitted a letter to the Slovak Parliament on behalf of 111 civil society organizations from across the world urging lawmakers to reject this regressive legislation and refrain from further attempts to restrict reproductive rights in Slovakia. 

If passed, this draft legislation would have forced patients to obtain authorization from two doctors, instead of one, in situations where an abortion is necessary for medical reasons, and require that patients disclose their reason for seeking an abortion and other private information. The bill also sought to prohibit so-called “advertising” on abortion which would have restricted doctors’ ability to provide evidence-based information on abortion and where to access legal abortion care.  

“The sole purpose of the proposed legislation was to introduce new barriers to women’s access to abortion care in Slovakia,” Adriana Lamačková, senior legal adviser for Europe at the Center, explained. “We applaud the Slovak Parliament’s rejection of these regressive legislative proposals and call on the legislators to refrain from imposing further restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.” 

Experts agree that these restrictions are harmful, medically unnecessary, and contravene World Health Organization guidelines. While the Slovak Parliament’s rejection of this legislation is critical to the protection of women’s health and well-being, this is only the latest attempt by Slovakia’s group of parliamentarians to restrict reproductive rights.  

The United Nations has repeatedly called on Slovakia to remove barriers to accessing safe and legal abortion, and other organizations, including the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, have all expressed concerns about these continued regressive proposals. 

The Center will continue to monitor and oppose threats to abortion rights and access across Europe and the world.  

For more on our work in Poland and Slovakia, click here