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Diletta De Luca: The Importance of the Polish Abortion Ban for the European Union

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

A possible change in the Polish abortion laws shocked the world as it would prohibit the abortion for cases of fatal malformation or incurable diseases of the child. Such cases composed 98% of the legally-performed abortions in 2019. Consequently, this means that women will be forced to carry unfeasible, and in some cases, harmful pregnancies with no reprieve. Up until this point, legal abortions in Poland did not exceed the threshold of two thousand cases per year. Still, estimates reckon that every year more than two hundred thousand Polish women terminate their pregnancy either illegally within the country's borders, or abroad. Since Thursday's confirmation, protesters have taken to the streets of major Polish cities, and on Friday protests escalated into clashes with the police - particularly in Warsaw, Poland's capital. Commissioners and party leaders of the European Union (EU) have strongly criticized the country's ruling, but no concrete action has been taken against it.

One of the reasons behind the minimal interference of the EU is a lack of principal administrative responsibility regarding the healthcare policy and procedures of Member States. Generally, the impact of the EU on healthcare issues has been limited due to the rooted political and legislative limitations of the institution. Although there are calls to harmonize the various European healthcare systems under one umbrella, the EU still needs to respect the preferences and autonomy of Member States regarding their own healthcare systems and related decisions. The Treaty of Lisbon underlies the responsibility of each state to procure healthcare to every citizen as article 114 of the Treaty requires a high level of human health protection to be ensured by all countries. Nevertheless, the differentiation of policies and laws across the European states lead to inequalities and differentiated access to healthcare for European citizens. The most debated field in which these controversies become concrete is the issue of abortion.

Countries within the EU have different regulations regarding when abortion is legally allowed. At the European level, no policy or law about miscarriage related operations has been developed. As with healthcare, each national government has different procedures and allows for stricter or more liberal permissions concerning when and how an abortion can take place. Historically, almost all European countries underwent a process of liberalization of abortion laws since the 1950s. Today, in most European states, abortion is permitted to different extents. Nevertheless, Poland and Malta are the only two European member states where abortion is not fully legalized.

The criminalization of safe abortion procedures is especially problematic because it does

not actually diminish the number of performed abortions. Instead, unsafe and illegal abortions will still take place within the borders of countries like Poland or Malta, fostering clandestine and dangerous medical operations. For this reason, abortion rights are often conceived as a human right. Reproductive rights are inseparable from women’s general human rights. This is because a woman's rights to personal liberty, personal autonomy, and bodily integrity hinge on the extent to which her reproductive rights are granted or curtailed. For this reason, if the right to abortion is not granted, especially when the pregnancy is potentially life-threatening, the reproductive rights of women are restricted and so are their fundamental human rights. Therefore, making the act of abortion illegal does not ensure the absolute respect of life. Instead, it limits a woman’s possibility of choice.

What is happening in Poland is extremely relevant to all of us, especially for readers from

the EU. Abortion criminalization is never confined to women’s reproductive rights only. In fact, abortion restrictions perpetuate gender discrimination, gender gaps, violence against women, social stigmas and many other societal issues. All things considered, abortions need to be liberalized and recognized as a fundamental human right to be granted as such.

Polish protesters hold a sign reading 'Women's Strike'. Source:

Written by Diletta De Luca, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.

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