Poland's near-total abortion ban takes effect amid nationwide protests

Credit: AP

A near-total ban on abortion has come into force in Poland - triggering a wave of nationwide protests.

The new legislation comes after the country's top court ruled abortion in the case of a foetal abnormality is unconstitutional - even if there is no chance of survival upon birth.

It means abortion is now only legal in Poland if the woman's life or health is at risk or if a pregnancy results from rape or incest.

People poured onto the streets of Warsaw and other cities nationwide on Wednesday, with more anti-government demonstrations planned for Thursday.

Poland is coming under increasing pressure over its treatment of LGBT+ people too. Credit: AP

To date, about 98% of all legal abortions in the country were performed on the grounds of foetal malformations.

In 2019, a total of 1,110 legal abortion procedures were carried out in Poland - that figure for England and Wales was 207,384.

Poland’s top human rights official denounced the further restriction of what was already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, calling it a tragedy for women.

"The state wants to further limit their rights, risk their lives, and condemn them to torture," said Adam Bodnar, Poland's human rights commission.

"This offensive is opposed by civil society."

Demonstrations were held in cities around the country on Wednesday evening. Credit: AP

The restriction of abortion in the country comes amid a broader erosion of civil liberties and democratic norms under right-wing populist governments.

Reproductive rights activists say many hospitals had already started cancelling procedures ahead of the legislation coming into force - fearing possible repercussions.

Members of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party - a group aligned with the Roman Catholic Church - had long sought the new restriction.

They argued it was a way to prevent the abortion of foetuses with Down syndrome - which have made up a significant share of the legal abortions in Poland.

Protesters set off flares amid anger at the new abortion laws. Credit: AP

Protesters are demanding a full liberalisation of the abortion law and the resignation of the government, neither of which seem likely in the short term.

In the meantime, women’s rights groups are seeking new strategies to help women.

The Federation for Women and Family planning says it will seek redress in international courts, arguing that the new law violates prohibitions of cruel treatment and torture.

It is also assisting women who want to obtain abortion pills or travel abroad for the procedure.

Argentina became the largest nation in Latin America to legalise elective abortion. Credit: AP

Some protesters Wednesday covered their faces with green handkerchiefs - a symbol of the abortion rights movement in Argentina. The South American country recently legalised abortion, a momentous change in deeply Catholic Latin America.

Amnesty International, calling Poland’s law taking effect "a terrible day for women and girls in Poland," stressed than bans never prevent abortions.

"Instead, they serve only to damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need and to which they have a right," Amnesty senior research adviser Esther Major said.