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Warsaw: Police in Poland used pepper spray and arrested 15 people during protests against a ruling by the country's Supreme Court that could end virtually all forms of abortion in the country.
Despite soaring COVID-19 infection rates in Poland, hundreds of protesters gathered near the Warsaw home of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, the country's governing party, and deputy prime minister.
Mr Kaczynski has steered his party and the government along increasingly socially conservative lines, and as a consequence has become the focus of attention for those furious with the court's ruling.
A crowd angered by Poland’s new laws outlawing abortion gather outside the house of Poland’s ruling conservative party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw.Credit:AP
On Thursday, the court found a law permitting abortion in situations when there was severe damage to the fetus to be unconstitutional.
The ruling, which will almost certainly become law, means the vast majority of abortions carried out in Poland will now become illegal.
Currently, about 98 per cent of Polish abortions are due to foetal abnormality, but abortion will now only be allowed in the case of rape or incest.
The prospect of tighter restrictions could exacerbate bitter social divisions in Poland between conservative Catholics and the country's liberals. Although over 90 per cent of Poles still identify as Catholic, attempts to tighten the 1993 abortion law have always been met with fierce and widespread opposition, especially from Polish women.
In 2016, nationwide mass protests inflicted a rare defeat on the government, forcing it to withdraw an anti-abortion law. "Every year 40,000 women die worldwide from dangerous abortions," said Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation of Women and Family Planning.
"Is Poland, a democratic state in the middle of Europe, going to add to these infamous statistics?"
She added: "It is a disgrace to the Polish state, and it is cruelty to women. In my wildest dreams, I never thought something like this would happen 30 years after the abortion law was liberalised."
Critics of the court's ruling also voiced their suspicions that the ruling party, having failed to get a bill through parliament, decided to use the Supreme Court as an alternative means of enacting legislation. Opponents of the government have accused it of undermining the independence of the courts through a controversial overhaul of the legal system that some claim threatens the rule of law in Poland.
Further protests against the court's ruling, however, could well be stymied by new anti-virus restrictions, which limit gatherings to a maximum of five people. Opponents of the ruling will also have to contend with the steadfast support for tighter abortion laws among the country's establishment.
"I've always believed, and still believe, that every child has the right to life," said Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, in a newspaper interview published yesterday.
"I have talked about it often and have never concealed the fact that abortion for so called eugenic reasons should not be allowed in Poland."
"It's sick that such controversial things are being decided at a time when the entire society lives in fear [of the pandemic] and is afraid to go into the streets," said Marianna Dobkowska, 41.
Protests in Warsaw dispersed very early yesterday, with activists calling for further gatherings.
Conservative values have played a growing role in public life in Poland since the nationalist Law and Justice party came into power five years ago on a promise to defend what it sees as the nation's traditional Catholic character.
"Today Poland is an example for Europe, it's an example for the world," said Kaja Godek, a member of the Stop Abortion public initiative, a separate group.
The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called it a "sad day for women's rights".
"Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights," she said.
"Today's ruling of the Constitutional Court means underground/foreign abortions for those who can afford and even greater ordeal for all others."
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