by Dominika Tronina and Kaja Kaźmierska
On October 15th 2023, Poland will face another parliamentary election, the third in a row where the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has a real chance of winning. Having ruled Poland since 2015, and notoriously known for its destruction of Polish rule of law as well as its anti-gender politics (which include attacks on reproductive and sexual minorities’ rights), the PiS narrowly leads pre-election polls. Many observers fear that, should PiS get another term in power, reversing the changes it introduced and reinstating the rule of law will border on impossible.
Although the issue of abortion is a recurring topic in the Polish election campaigns, the issue has never been the main divider between the two largest parties across the last 20 years: the populist radical right PiS (governing 2005-2007 and again since 2015) and the centre-right Civic Platform (PO, governing 2007-2015). The two dominant parties have traditionally presented similar views on moral and ethical subjects, thus appealing to the majority of the Catholic Polish electorate.
This year’s election campaign, however, took a different turn. With the exception of PiS and the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja), all the main political parties in Poland, including the PO, The Left (Lewica) and the Third Way (Trzecia Droga), have declared the liberalisation of abortion rights a priority in their election campaign. The parties address the societal controversies surrounding the changes to the abortion rules and the subsequent change in practice in Polish hospitals, which followed the judgment of the Constitutional Court in 2020. These controversies have led to the largest wave of national protest in Poland seen since the fall of communism (1989).
Abortion rights now appear to be a new decisive factor in the Polish multi-party system. The politicisation of that issue is however less a change of heart than a strategic tool to channel grievances after tightening the abortion law and thus to win the election. In this post, we reassess the abortion rights discussion in Poland in order to understand its function in the current election campaign and its potential to guide voting behaviour.
The amendments to the law on abortion or the three options of abortion legislation
Understanding the changes to the abortion law throughout the history of the modern Polish state (since 1989) is necessary to grasp the current abortion debate. These changes represent three legislative solutions which are mostly discussed in the Polish context.
The first solution was the 1993 law on family planning. This law was introduced with the influence of the Catholic Church, hence nicknamed the “abortion compromise”. It allowed for abortion under three sets of circumstances: 1) when the pregnancy posed a threat to the life or health of the woman (without restrictions on the age of the foetus), 2) when prenatal or other medical tests indicated a high probability of “severe and irreversible impairment” of the foetus or an incurable life-threatening disease (until the foetus was able to live independently outside the pregnant woman’s body), and 3) if there was a reasonable suspicion that the pregnancy resulted from a prohibited act (up to 12th week).
Throughout nearly the entire history of the modern Poland, the 1993 law has been in power. Only briefly in 1996 a more liberal law was introduced, permitting termination of pregnancy for so-called social reasons. The Constitutional Court deemed this law unconstitutional in 1997, reinstating the stricter 1993 law. Currently, there are different ideas on how to liberalise the 1993 law, which can be understood as the second legislative solution. Most proposals follow the legislation of other European countries and advocate for the possibility to terminate a pregnancy for any reason up to the 12th week.
Finally, the third solution foresees restricting the “abortion compromise”: The years 2007 and 2016 saw attempts to make the 1993 law stricter by including the legal protection of human life from conception in the Constitution or introducing an abortion ban in case of an illness of the foetus, respectively.
However, all these attempts were rejected in the Parliament and the 1993 law remained in force until the Constitutional Court’s judgment of 22/10/2020. According to that judgment, allowing abortion due to a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment of the foetus or an incurable life-threatening disease was unconstitutional. One of three circumstances when abortion was permitted was thus ruled illegal. The implications of that judgment were huge as approximately 98% of abortions in Poland (around 1000 per year) were conducted for that reason in the years leading up that judgment, which led to the wave of protests.
Abortion in Polish election campaigns: past to present
The 1993 “abortion compromise” has always been present in Polish public discourse, especially during election campaigns. However, amendments of the 1993 law have mainly been proposed by Poland’s smaller political parties, as opposed to the two big contenders dominating the Polish political scene throughout the 21st century: PiS and Civic Platform (now called Civic Coalition).
During its rule (2005-2007 and from 2015 onwards), PiS was criticised for not tightening the abortion law, first in 2007 by the far-right League of Polish Families, and secondly in 2019 by a member of the far-right Konfederacja.
The liberalisation of the 1993 law has never been high up among the Polish political parties’ top priorities, except for the Left. In the electoral campaign of 2011, the leader of the main leftist party, SLD (The Alliance of the Democratic Left, Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej) at the time, submitted a draft law for allowing abortion up to 12th week of pregnancy. This is was mocked by the then ruling PO as an irrelevant subject, with one PO representative congratulating Napieralski on his “idea, freshness, and high intellectual level”.
Given the widespread protests of 2020 that followed the judgment of the Constitutional Court to restrict abortion, several political parties shifted their position on the issue. Polish opposition parties (including Civic Coalition, the Left, Third Way) proposed several amendments, aiming to use the ongoing societal controversies on reproductive rights to their benefit. Subsequently, the always present issue of abortion rights has shifted from the periphery to the core of both the election campaign and the Polish party-system.
Among these opposition parties, few have undergone a more fundamental shift in stance regarding abortion than Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition. While in power between 2007 and 2015, Tusk’s party downplayed the significance of abortion rights; in 2023, however, the party started the pre-election cycle with pledges to pursue more progressive abortion policies, if elected. Furthermore, Donald Tusk announced that he would like make abortions legal up until the 12th week of pregnancy, including it in his party’s list of 100 top priorities, a statement which proved controversial even within his own party. However, this allowed Tusk to appeal to a leftist electorate. The current polls indicate that 97% of people who plan to vote for Tusk’s coalition also support the liberalisation of Polish abortion laws. Tusk’s declaration mirrors the proposals by the left-wing party Lewica, which advocate for “allowing a termination of all pregnancies up to the 12th week based solely on the woman’s decision, and after the 12th week of pregnancy – when the woman’s life or health is endangered or the foetus is severely impaired.”
Abortion rights are also mentioned by the joint list of the centrist Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) and the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL). The leaders of both parties, Szymon Hołownia (Polska 2050) and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (PSL), have frequently voiced anti-abortion stances and/or advocated a return to the conditions of the 1993 law. Nevertheless, both leaders have proposed to first restore the legal setup from before the 2020 judgment of the Constitutional Court, and then hold a referendum within 100 days. As such, they appear to be navigating between their more Catholic conservative electorate and the high dissatisfaction with the abortion rights restriction.
Unsurprisingly, PiS and the far-right Konfederacja have not changed their positions and support the current state of law, resulting from the 2020 judgment.
Implications for the upcoming election?
Hence, as illustrated above, for the first time ever, abortion rights are a significantly distinguishing factor between the two major parties, and also take a central position in the election manifestos of potential coalition partners
Whether the strategic inclusion of abortion rights in the election campaign has a chance in exerting influence on the final outcome is a dilemma lacking a straightforward answer. The Polish society is rather polarised on this matter.
On the one hand, many Poles do not widely support access to abortion: the World Values Survey reported for several years that Poles stand out as its staunchest opponents in the European context. This social conservativism is often attributed to the significant influence of the Catholic Church in Polish society, as an institution that not only shapes public opinion and national identity but also continues to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s abortion laws.
Interestingly, and despite intense social polarisation in regards to abortion, opinion polls suggest that abortion is not the primary determinant of voting choices in Poland. In fact, it came in last place among factors influencing the voters’ behaviour in a 2019 poll, far behind solving healthcare issues, climate change, or increasing food prices. Meanwhile, in 2022,only 1.4% of the Polish electorate indicated that abortion would influence their voting behaviour.
Given how tight the current election is, even the votes of just 1-2% of the electorate could significantly affect the overall election outcome, and the Polish political landscape for years to come. Therefore, the abortion debate may play a more prominent role than ever, providing one of the parties with a winning edge.
A reduced version of this piece, written in German, is available at: https://genderblog.hu-berlin.de/das-recht-auf-schwangerschaftsabbruch-im-wahlkampf-der-fall-polen/
Dominika Tronina is a doctoral researcher and teaching fellow at the Chair of Comparative Political Science and Political Systems of Eastern Europe at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Center for Comparative Research on Democracy. Before joining HU, Dominika graduated in Eastern European Studies (MA), Sociology and Polish Studies (BA). Her research focuses on social movements, political communication and digital media particularly in the field of far right and anti-gender mobilizations. In her dissertation, Dominika investigates processes of online transnationalization among anti-gender movements from Croatia, Germany, France, Italy and Poland.
Kaja Kaźmierska is a PhD Candidate and Research Fellow, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Kaja works on the research project Judicial Autonomy under Authoritarian Attack. Her PhD thesis looks at The Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, analysing threats to the independence of these courts and tools they have at their disposal to combat them. She is also an associated researcher at DynamInt, the graduate college at the law department of Humboldt University. Before joining HU, Kaja worked for over four years as a legal analyst in the area of EU law in a consulting company, Spark Legal Network, in London. She also underwent internships in the European Commission, the Council of Europe and various Polish embassies. Kaja studied English, German and European law at King’s College London and Humboldt University. She has a MA in EU International Relations from the College of Europe, Bruges. She speaks Polish, English and German fluently and has an advanced knowledge of French and Italian.
 The Polish law and the legal discussions currently do not foresee any changes regarding more gender-neutral language such as referring to “pregnant people”. To reflect the current abortion debate in Poland, we translated as closely as possible any references to the law and amendment proposals.