Two citizen initiatives, on abortion and sex education were debated in Parliament on Wednesday. Both were submitted by conservative pro-life and pro-family groups and both attracted the statutory number of signatures (100,000) needed for such initaitives to be debated. The proposals are supported by the Catholic Church.
Similar proposals in the past have led to sizable street protests. However, the current Coronavirus restrictions on public assembly have led to the protests being conducted online, in cars and from balconies of apartments.
The two proposals were submitted during the last parliamentary terms. According to parliamentary standing orders in the new term of Parliament they must be considered within six months of the new Parliament being constituted. This means that a decision on the legislation must be taken by May 12 of this year.
The citizens initiative on abortion proposes to prohibit the termination of pregnancies due to foetal defects. This is one of the only three cases in which abortion is legally permitted in Poland, the other two being a threat to the mother’s life or health, or pregnancy resulting from a criminal act such as rape and incest.
The diagnosis of fetal defects is used as grounds for more than 90 percent of the cc 1,000 legal abortions that take place in Poland every year. The proposal to ban ‘eugenic abortions’ was submitted to parliament by Kaja Godek, a prominent pro-life activist, in November 2017 with the backing of 830,000 signatures. But, following further protests, it was delayed until the end of the parliamentary term in 2019.
The proposal is slightly less radical than an earlier 2016 proposal which threatened to introduce jail sentences for women who break the law or fines for complicit doctors. That proposal led to the “black protests” by women’s groups.
Law and Justice ambivalent on the change
The 2016 protests and also those in 2017 have played a role in the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) taking a decision to keep its distance on the matter. The party has in the past been unwilling to do anything which challenged the abortion compromise which was reached in the early 1990s. But many of its MPs have expressed support for containing ‘eugenic abortions’.
The Catholic Church has been pressing PiS to make good on the view of the leader of the party, Jarosław Kaczyński, that every child, however deformed, is born so it can be “christened, buried and given a name”.
President Andrzej Duda, backed by the ruling party, has also expressed his support for banning “eugenic abortion”. He said that he would sign such a bill into law because he feels that “killing disabled children is simply murder”.
Opinion polling suggests that most voters support the existing compromise on abortion, even though it is the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU with the exception of Malta, and do not wish to see a tightgening of the law. There is considerable support for liberalisation of the law and considerably less enthusiasm for tightening it. In Parliament PiS, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the radical right Confederation and many Civic Platform would not support any liberalisation of the legislation. The “Left” caucus is the only parliamentary group that would.
The Lower House is also to debate a citizens initiative bill on Wednesday, aimed at stopping paedophilia in schools. The measure is controversial as it would make it a crime to “propagate or approve of engagement by minors in sexual intercourse or other sexual activity” while “performing activities related to upbringing, education, health care or care of minors”. This is interpreted by some as an attempt to ban sex education through the back door. Some forms of sex education have on occassion been criticised by pro-family groups as preparing or perpetrating paedophile offences and sexual corruption of kids.
The charge that the legislation could ban sex education led the EP last year to pass a resolution condemming the legislative draft. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic on Tuesday urged Poland’s Parliament to reject both the citizens initiatives on the grounds that they restrict the rights of women and children.
The PiS MPs supporting the legislation reject these accusations. They argue that the legislation is not attempting to stop sex education, but forms of sex education which are unacceptable to parents and which could be construed as promoting sex among minors.
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Poland reluctant to follow western Europe on gender
During the referendum on whether Poland should join the EU the Catholic Church and conservative parties backed membership on the explicit understanding that axiomatic issues with regard to gender and conscience would remain in the domain of domestic state regulation. But that was nearly 20 years ago.
This was always an uneasy compromise for the left and liberals to stomach. For many conservatives the compromise was too far the other way on issues such as abortion or sex education. They want to see more protection for life and family values.
PiS has always combined patriotism and quest for social and economic justice with conservatism on axiomatic issues. But it has been reluctant to touch the abortion “compromise”, fearing it could alienate women and young voters.
But the party has to watch its back on the right. The Confederation entered Parliament in 2019 and is competing with PiS on being the ‘genuine right’. While the grouping is still polling in single figures PiS will be reminded that back in the noughties it took it several years to see off the “League of Polish Families” (LPR) before it could dream of getting a majority in Parliament on its own.
Kicking into touch?
The ruling party has for years avoided taking any definitive decisions on abortion. It looks as if this is set to continue.
What do governments and political parties do when they want to avoid taking a decision? Send it to a committee to deliberate on. PiS can send the citizen initiatives into the committee stage and keep them there for as long as it wishes.