Poland pushes near-total abortion ban

A protester holds a banner with slogan reading "'Freedom of choice not the terror" in Poland on Sept 22, 2016.
A protester holds a banner with slogan reading "'Freedom of choice not the terror" in Poland on Sept 22, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

WARSAW (AFP) - Rightwing lawmakers on Friday (Sept 23) pushed ahead with a near-total ban on abortion in devoutly Catholic Poland, while rejecting a rival bid to liberalise the existing law already among the most restrictive in Europe.

The governing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which controls parliament, sent to committee a bill that would allow terminations only if the mother's life is at risk and increase the maximum jail term for practitioners from two years to five.

The citizen's initiative tabled in parliament by the Stop Abortion coalition would also make mothers liable to prison terms, though judges could waive punishment in their case.

Poland's influential Catholic Church gave the initiative its seal of approval earlier this year, though its bishops have since opposed jailing women.

Head of Poland's KAI Catholic information agency Marcin Przeciszewski told AFP he expected the PiS would axe the provision on jailing women during legislative work.

The proposal, which the Council of Europe called a "serious backsliding on women's rights", inspired several large pro-choice marches and a rival drive to liberalise the law that lawmakers struck down on Friday in its first reading.

Tabled by the "Save Women" pro-choice coalition it would have allowed abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy.

"Save Women" activist Barbara Nowacka vowed Friday to try again.

"Parliament doesn't want to talk about women's rights, dignity, a decent life, sex education or birth control, but that doesn't mean that we'll give up," she said.

Although the PiS generally favours banning abortion, its leaders are well aware that most Poles support the existing legislation.

Passed in 1993, the current law bans all terminations unless there was rape or incest, the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother or the foetus is severely deformed.

A poll published this week by the Newsweek Polska magazine showed that 74 per cent of Poles want to keep the existing law.

The country of 38 million people sees less than 2,000 legal abortions a year, but women's groups estimate that another 100,000-150,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.

Lawmakers also sent to committee a PiS-proposed bill intended to limit in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), the so-called "test-tube baby" treatment that involves fertilising an egg outside a woman's body to produce an embryo that can then be implanted in her womb.

The measure would notably make it illegal to freeze embryos, which its proponents say are human beings from the moment of fertilisation.

It would also only allow women to fertilise one egg at a time, thus considerably reducing the chances of a successful pregnancy.