In the last two months, Poland was shaken by fierce protests after the Constitutional Tribunal outlawed abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities. The decision was widely condemned and brought hundreds of thousands to the streets. Demonstrations seemed effective, as the government suspended the verdict and reaffirmed the previous law due to “serious social tensions”. But opinions vary about whether the defenders of women’s rights can breathe a sigh of relief, or if Poland risks undermining the rule of law.
Women’s movements and left-wing politicians call for the liberalisation of abortion law in a manner that would align with European standards. However, the public’s centre-liberal mainstream rejects those calls: “Abortion cannot be the method of contraception available upon request” and therefore explicitly refuse to “support radical leftist postulates” but still hope to “maintain the abortion compromise“.
“Compromise” is a key word in the Polish debate on abortion. It refers to an act of law from 1993 that limited the right to abortion to three exceptional cases: risk to mother’s health, rape or incest, and fetal defects. Since its implementation, the law has been portrayed as a careful balance between a full ban of abortion at one extreme, and its unconditional availability at the other. However, the 1993 Act tightened the previous regulations, as until then abortion had been available for decades also on the grounds of the woman’s socio-economic situation. The Catholic church pushed the law’s restriction during post-1989 transformation at the same time that the church also advanced a new socio-political order.
Nonetheless, “compromise” has become a talisman of public discourse. Mainstream observers often restate its role in ensuring social stability: leaders of the centrist opposition call against “touching this fragile agreement,” and even former PM Donald Tusk, the current leader of the European People’s Party, stated that “it protected Poles from abortion civil war”. Moreover, many of those centrist politicians, Donald Tusk included, voted against the 1993 Act, over the objections of a petition that 1.7 million citizens signed. Yet arguments about wide social support for “the compromise” still ring in mainstream debates.
Nationwide surveys fail to yield clear answers about the public’s true inclinations. In a poll from 2016 run by IPSOS, 47% of respondents expressed support for the current abortion law, whereas 37% opted for expanding the grounds to a “woman’s difficult economic situation”. In 2019, a different research center IBRIS revealed similar trends, with nearly half of interviewees supporting “the compromise” and 29% choosing unrestricted access to abortion.
However, a year before, the same IBRIS conducted another study that asked people whether they support the unconditional right to terminate pregnancy. 54% responded “definitely yes”, and 15% replied “somewhat yes”, which suggests majority support for the full relaxation of abortion laws. Nonetheless, more than showing the real attitude towards abortion, the surveys instead revealed tendencies to support policies that are the status quo. Attitudes can change, but change depends on which mainstream is the point of reference.
The abortion debate in Poland can be viewed through the perspective of the Overton window. According to Joseph P. Overton, political ideas exist on a distribution that stretches between extremes defined as “unthinkable” or “radical”. Towards the center of the distribution, attitudes progress through “acceptable” and “popular” to “legal”. A passage from Noam Chomsky’s “The Common Good” illustrates the framework’s value:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
Abortion provides an example of how policies shift along the distribution with time and political actions, as in most Western countries abortion progressed from criminalised to fully legal. But Poland moved in the opposite direction, delegalising the socio-economic premise 27 years ago. It is no surprise though, that abortion-upon-request remains for many even further toward unthinkability on the distribution whereas the current, most draconian law in EU, lays in its centre.
Thousands who hit the streets and engaged in heated discussions achieved no more than entrenching the status quo. 60% of society wants to keep the current law, and only 22% opts for its liberalisation, according to the survey conducted in October by Kantar. The Tribunal’s unthinkable verdict encouraged also slightly less unthinkable legislative proposals, such as forbidding abortion in case of Down syndrome, but allowing it in case of lethal defects. While the Overton window so far stays unmoved, anti-choice pressures remain.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.