Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said that the right to choose is a fundamental one but available only to those who actually get to live. He defended the constitutional court’s ruling arguing that it does not mean that abortion is impossible in certain circumstances.
The constitutional court ruling last week means that the clause in the family planning law which allows for abortions when doctors deem that the child born is likely to be severely disabled is unocntitutional as it does not guarantee the right to life. This is interpreted as meaning that only abortions as a result of the life of the mother being under threat or the pregnancy being caused by rape or incest will remain legal.
Large scale protests against the decision have been taking place in dozens of Polish cities for the last five days. The sitting of Parliament on Tuesday was disrupted by opposition MPs who back the protesters. One of the MPs, Magdalena Biejat said that “this is war” a slogan which has been used during the demonstrations.
PM Morawiecki said that there was a need to define what the debate was about, whether it was about the right to life of children with Down syndrome or about abortion on demand. He argued that there is no question that mothers would be expected to give birth in situations that would endanger their life or health. “We cannot demand heroism from women” declared the PM.
The PM promised that prenatal tests would be widened to all women and not just women over 35 years old. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) are also considering a substantial rise in the level of benefits for parents bringing up disabled children.
According to the PM “the freedom to choose is a fundamental right, but we can all agree that in order to have that right one has to first actually live.” He also appealed for calm and condemned some of the actions taken by demonstrators. “What is happening in public spaces, the acts of aggression, vandalism and barbaric actions are unacceptable… There can be no acceptance of attacks on people and the churches”. The PM added that he feared that escalation of tension could lead to serious consequences.
Opposition MPs are not united
There are clear differences in the attitudes of different opposition parties to the present abortion dispute. The Left has proposed that Parliament should debate a bill to liberalise access to abortion.
The largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO), declared that it considers the constitutional court to be totally invalid and therefore the ruling on abortion to be null and void. They base their argument on the allegation that three of the judges back in 2015 had been elected in violation of the constitution.
The Polish People’s Party (PSL) has asked for the constitutional court ruling not to be published for the duration of the pandemic and a referendum to be called on abortion that Parliament would commit to respect and alter the constitution accordingly. However, the radical right Confederation protested about the fact that demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions were being broken up by the police while the demonstrations against the constitutional court ruling were not.
Ruling block on the defensive
The ruling block has been taken aback by the scale of the protests which have taken place. Some are concerned about the timing of the constitutional court ruling which has come at a time when the number of COVD-19 infections is escalating. The calculation that people would not take to the streets at a time of the pandemic, if it was made, has clearly failed to materialize. And if it was an attempt to ensure PiS dominance on the right against the radicals from Confederation then it might have over-reached.
The centre-right Agreement party led by Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin and other PiS MPs have called for an amendment to the family planning law which would allow abortions in cases of lethal damage to the fetus but not in cases of disabilities such as Down syndrome. But others doubt if this is compatible with the constitutional court’s ruling.
It is not likely that the ruling block would agree not to publish the constitutional court’s ruling and thereby suspend the conflict. The ruling PiS has in the past been heavily criticised for not publishing some rulings of the constitutional court on the grounds that the court had over-reached its powers over Parliament.
A referendum is even less likely. It would be incredibly difficult to frame the question. Indeed, the framing of the question could determine the outcome. If the question was unacceptable to one side or the other than the 50 percent threshold might not be reached as the opponents of the given formulation of the question might boycott the vote.
The government will try to ride out the storm. The fight against COVID-19 has to be its priority. Large-scale demonstrations cannot be helpful with that regard, even though most demonstrators are respecting the obligation to wear face masks, though not social distancing.
The Prime Minister’s line of the right to choose being dependent on the right to live is an echo of what President Ronald Reagan once declared. He said that “all those who support abortion happen to be people who have already been born”.