Abortion has often been a controversial subject throughout the past century, in different societies. In many countries abortion is still illegal, rendering women who continue with the procedure at higher risk, due to harmful and unverified abortion methods. Some countries have adopted the abortion law, which permits, prohibits, restricts, or otherwise regulates the availability of abortions. However, according to the World Health Organization, the abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal to countries where it is not. Furthermore, there are no international laws ensuring that a proper abortion law, making sure all women have equal access to the procedure, is applicable throughout the world. The American Convention on Human Rights declared human life as commencing with conception in 2013, whereas the United Nations Human Rights Committee ordered Peru to compensate a woman denied abortion in 2005, which was only done in 2016. This was the first time that an international committee acknowledged that abortion is a human right.
It is important to note that in 97% of all countries, abortion is permitted when a woman’s health is at risk. 49% accept it in the case of rape or incest, 69% in the case of physical health, and 24% because of economic or social reasons. Only 29% of all countries accept abortion upon a woman’s request. Even in the United States, despite the changes brought about by the Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973, there exist many restrictions to how an abortion can be conducted in certain circumstances, including physician and hospital requirements, gestational limits, or waiting periods.
The matter of abortion was raised lately with the mass protests in Poland in early October. Even though the Polish abortion law is already so restrictive, an independent anti-abortion campaign group proposed a near-total ban on abortion. The campaign was part of a citizen’s initiative and was supported by ultra-Catholic groups, which gathered 450,000 signatures. The law was already restrictive in that it only allowed abortion in cases resulting from a crime, such as rape and incest, or was needed in cases of serious health concern for the mother, or when the baby was at risk of permanent disability. The party leader of the anti-abortion campaign claimed that, “PiS (the ruling Law and Justice party) continues to back the protection of life, and it will continue to take action in this respect but it will be considered action”. The campaign lobbied to only permit abortion when the life of the mother was directly at risk.
On October 3rd, 2016, also referred to as Black Monday, a nationwide strike was held. Women dressed in black marched on the streets to protest the impending proposed law, claiming that the laws on pregnancy terminations were already strict enough, and holding signs saying “No Women, No Krai” (which could be a reference to the Bob Marley’s song, “No Woman No Cry”) or “My Body My Choice”. The inspiration for this movement was a women’s strike in Iceland in 1975 that demanded equal rights for women, and enabled a landmark legislation on gender parity.
If approved, the proposed law by the independent-run campaign would have made it possible to imprison women seeking abortion and doctors performing them for up to five years. Women were ready to protest every day; this included a majority of Poles, not just a small group of leftist organizations. The movement included a rally outside of the Parliament in Warsaw on Saturday, demanding the same rights across Europe. The turnout was not as large in small towns and rural areas, which are mainly conservative, contrary to the liberal political tendencies of the big cities. Finally, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS), which advocated to help poorer Poles and gained the votes of many women, withdrew its support for the draft of the proposed law. However, around the same time another citizen’s initiative called for a liberalization of the abortion law. This draft proposed allowing the procedure up until 12 weeks of pregnancy. PIS neglected to discuss this draft. The country’s Left Wing party claimed that the Law and Justice Party was only working on the “stop-abortion” proposal.
The battle to obtain a world-wide accepted woman’s right to an abortion is far from over in Poland. The battle becomes important when less than 2000 of the Polish-performed abortions are done legally, and 100,000 to 150,000 abortions are done illegally or abroad.
(Romanian women show support in Bucarest to Polish women – all images come from Getty Images)