Polish Court Declares One of Few Remaining Legal Grounds for Abortion Unconstitutional

By Marcin Goclowski and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk

October 23, 2020

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Thursday that abortion due to foetal defects was unconstitutional, banning one of the few remaining legal grounds for pregnancy termination in the predominantly Catholic country.

After the ruling goes into effect, abortion will be only be permissible in Poland in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health and life.

"(A provision which) legalises eugenic practices in the field of the right to life of an unborn child and makes the right to life of an unborn child dependent on his or her health, which constitutes direct discrimination ... is inconsistent ... with the constitution," said Julia Przylebska, Head of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Conservative values have played a growing role in public life in Poland since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) came into power five years ago on a promise to defend what it sees as the nation's traditional, Catholic character.

Curbing access to abortion has been a long-standing ambition of the party, but it has stepped back from previous legislative proposals amid widespread public backlash.

Critics say the Constitutional Tribunal may have acted on the party's behalf. While the Tribunal is nominally independent, most of its judges have been appointed by PiS.

PiS denies trying to influence Tribunal rulings, although its shakeup of Poland's judiciary has prompted charges at home and abroad that it is subverting democratic norms. PiS says its reforms only aim to make the judiciary more efficient and fair.

Abortion rights activists say access to procedure has declined in recent years in Poland even in cases when it would be legal.

Many doctors in Poland, which has some of the strictest abortion rules in Europe, already exercise their legal right to refuse to terminate pregnancies on religious grounds. Some say they are pressured into doing so by their superiors.

Bartlomiej Wroblewski, a PiS MP, told the court that abortion due to foetal defects was akin to eugenics.

"Euthanasia killing cannot be justified with the argument that the incurably ill person will be living in discomfort " he said.

Barbara Nowacka, an opposition MP told private radio Zet ahead of the ruling: "These are very difficult choices and I would not have the courage to make decisions for the families that are facing this situation."