WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish lawmakers debated a citizens’ bill on Wednesday to tighten already restrictive abortion rules as rights activists protested on social media and in small clusters in front of parliament, with public gatherings restricted by the coronavirus.
Abortion rights are highly contentious in Poland, where the Roman Catholic church still wields broad influence, not least over the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, but considerable public opposition is currently muted by the lockdown.
The bill would ban abortion in one of the few instances in which it is allowed in Poland – where prenatal tests show serious, irreversible damage to the foetus. Other preconditions are incest, rape and risks to maternal health.
“We are talking about whether in Poland we can cut people into pieces without anaesthetic,” Kaja Godek, one of the authors of the proposal, told parliament.
PiS campaigns on introducing more Catholic religious values into public life, but has signalled some reluctance to back the bill ahead of a presidential election on May 10.
A PiS spokeswoman said that parliament would probably vote on Thursday to send the measure to a committee for further deliberations.
PiS has in the past retreated from proposals virtually to ban abortion outright after a public outcry. By Wednesday, about 700,000 people had signed an online petition to the government opposing the bill.
A few dozen protesters gathered around parliament and lone black umbrellas – a symbol of Poland’s abortion rights movement – dotted windows in parts of Warsaw.
“You are exposing poor women to fear,” said Barbara Nowacka, a leftist member of parliament. “Polish women are smart, brave and aware … they will choose the good of their family and their loved ones.”
Campaigners also say the PiS would be criticised if it pushed the bill through when restrictions on public life because of the coronavirus pandemic prohibit demonstrations.
Opinion polls indicate that incumbent president Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is likely to be re-elected on May 10, although the pandemic has increased the unpredictability of the vote.
PiS is seeking to hold the ballot by post rather than polling booths, but a bill to do so might clear parliament only days before the election date, leaving little time to organise.
The opposition has said the vote should be postponed because opposition campaigning has been limited by the pandemic while Duda’s office has given him a privileged platform.
Rights activists say the pandemic has also curbed Polish women’s access to abortion abroad because of travel restrictions throughout Europe.
Many women terminate pregnancies in Germany, Slovakia and further away, in cases when it would be illegal in Poland, or when hospitals refuse to perform an abortion that is legal.
(Additional reporting by Alan Charlish, Joanna Plucinska and Alicja Ptak; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Kevin Liffey)