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Polish elections point to possible shift in country’s abortion laws, ‘political clashes’

The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament. / Credit: SpandowStockPhoto/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 17, 2023 / 14:40 pm (CNA).

Liberal opposition parties won a significant political victory over Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party on Sunday, gaining a majority in the nation’s Parliament and raising the possibility of imminent abortion expansions in the country.

According to Poland’s National Election Commission, the opposition parties garnered a total of 53.71% of the vote, dealing a major blow to the conservative ruling party. 

The Polish Parliament’s lower chamber, known as the Sejm, has 460 seats that are primarily filled by the country’s major political parties. To have a majority, a party or coalition must hold at least 231 seats in the Sejm.

The conservative Law and Justice Party (known by its Polish acronym PiS), which has a platform based on “the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to equality,” has been in power since 2015. Under the PiS, Poland has expanded pro-life protections in the country.

Although the PiS won the largest single percentage of the vote at 35.38%, this earns it only 198 seats in the Parliament, falling short of the majority necessary to form a new government.

Meanwhile, the next three largest parties are expected to work together to form a new government to oust the PiS. The liberal parties that are expected to combine forces are the Civic Coalition, which won 30.7% of the vote; the centrist Third Way, which won 14.4%; and the Left Party, which earned 8.61%. This gives the liberal coalition a strong majority in the Sejm.

Sébastien Meuwissen, a spokesperson for the Polish conservative think tank Ordo Iuris Institute, told CNA that “the most probable scenario at the moment” is that the three parties will combine to form a government that will reverse course on abortion. 

Meuwissen did note, however, that the current Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose term ends in 2025, is “still a conservative and has a veto right, which makes it more complicated” for the liberal parties “to do whatever they please.” 

“The upcoming two years will more than likely be a time of severe political clashes,” Meuwissen said. 

Since the majority party typically gets to determine the prime minister, the Civic Coalition’s leader Donald Tusk will likely become Poland’s next prime minister. Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and as the president of the EU’s European Council from 2014 through 2019.

Tusk celebrated the news on Sunday, declaring an outright victory and saying: “Poland won, democracy has won.”

What’s at stake for abortion? 

Abortion is currently illegal in Poland except for cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger. 

In 2020 Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which is currently composed of 15 judges all elected by the PiS Sejm, scrapped a law allowing abortion in the cases of fetal anomalies or defects.

The change put a stop to approximately 90% of the roughly 1,000 annual abortions that took place in the country, according to research conducted in 2021 and 2022 by the Polish news source Notes from Poland.

Meuwissen told CNA that “most Poles were apparently not happy with the Constitutional Court ruling of 2020 on abortion,” which, he said, “partly explains the high turnout.” 

The Civic Coalition, Left Party, and Third Way, meanwhile, have promised to introduce legislation to legalize abortion. 

OKO Press, a Polish news source, reported that the Civic Coalition has promised to legalize abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

According to reporting by the Guardian, Tusk said in the spring that “abortion is a woman’s decision, not a priest’s, prosecutor’s, policeman’s, or party activist’s.“ 

Tusk promised to make the legalization of abortion a priority, saying: “We will be ready to propose it to the Sejm on the first day after the next parliamentary elections.” 

The Left Party, for its part, promises to “introduce the right to terminate pregnancy until the 12th week” and “after the 12th week of pregnancy” in the event “of a threat to the life or health of the woman or severe fetal defects.”

The Third Way has also promised to consider expanding abortion rights. On its website, the Third Way promises to call a referendum within the first 100 days of the new government to decide the question of “restoring the legal status on the possibility of terminating pregnancy.” 

Beyond legalizing abortion until 12 weeks, Meuwissen believes the new government will try to expand abortion by extending the “health of the mother” exception currently in force to include the “mental health of the mother.”

This “could be a significant first step,” Meuwissen said, toward abortion on demand in Poland. 

As for the fetal anomaly exception, Meuwissen said the new government “will certainly not be able to overturn the [2020] ruling reminding that eugenic abortions are unconstitutional, given its lack of a constitutional majority.”

Poland, which is 85% Catholic, has clashed with the European Union (EU) in recent years because of the country’s pro-life laws, rejection of LGBTQ+ ideology, and strict anti-immigration policies.

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