Grounds on which abortion is permitted:
To save the life of the woman Yes
To preserve physical health Yes
To preserve mental health Yes
Rape or incest Yes
Foetal impairment Yes
Economic or social reasons No
Available on request No
An abortion must be performed by an obstetrician or gynaecologist who has passed the national proficiency tests. The abortion must be performed in a hospital or clinic with the consent of the pregnant woman or her parents or guardian if she is a minor. The procedure must be performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless continued pregnancy would endanger the life or health of the pregnant woman.
Government view on fertility level: Too low
Government intervention concerning fertility level: To raise
Government policy on contraceptive use: Direct support provided
Percentage of currently married women using
modern contraception (aged 20-49, 1991): 19a,b
Total fertility rate (1995-2000): 1.5
Age-specific fertility rate (per 1,000 women aged 15-19, 1995-2000): 23
Government has expressed particular concern about:
Morbidity and mortality resulting from induced abortion Yes
Complications of childbearing and childbirth No
Maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births, 1990):
Developed countries 27
Female life expectancy at birth (1995-2000): 76.9
a Including consensual unions, where possible.
b Excluding sterilization.
Until 1932, abortion was generally prohibited in Poland. On 11 July 1932, the restrictive legislation was modified to allow abortion when a pregnancy endangered the life or health of the woman or resulted from a crime (rape or incest). The law required a legal abortion to be performed by a physician with the consent of two other physicians.
A law adopted by the Polish Parliament (Sejm) on 27 April 1956 (Law No. 61) further liberalized the abortion laws by permitting abortion on medical grounds, if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act or because of “difficult living conditions”. Although abortion was not explicitly permitted on grounds of foetal impairment, serious defects of the unborn child often constituted “difficult living conditions” for the pregnant woman. The great majority of abortions were performed on the ground of “difficult living conditions”, which, under regulations issued subsequent to the law, left the decision essentially to the pregnant woman as long as she could find a physician willing to perform the operation.
Although the procedural requirements to be observed in order for a lawful abortion to be performed were amended repeatedly over the years (1956, 1959, 1969, 1981 and 1990), access to abortion after the passage of the 1956 legislation remained largely constant until 1990 with the election of the first non-Communist Government in Poland since the end of the Second World War. Under regulations issued by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (Ordinance of 30 April 1990), a request for an abortion on the grounds of difficult living conditions had to be approved by two gynecologists and a general practitioner. The pregnant woman was also required to obtain the counselling of a State-approved psychologist. The Ministry also set a fee for the performance of abortions on non-therapeutic grounds.
In 1993, Parliament enacted further restrictions on access to abortion by eliminating entirely “difficult living conditions” as a ground for the performance of legal abortions. Henceforth, abortions could be performed legally only in cases of serious threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman, as attested by two physicians, cases of rape or incest confirmed by a prosecutor, and cases in which prenatal tests, confirmed by two physicians, demonstrated that the foetus was seriously and irreversibly damaged. A ban was also placed on the performance of abortions in private clinics. A physician who performed an abortion in violation of the law was subject to up to two years’ imprisonment, although the pregnant woman herself was exempt from punishment. The law also amended the abortion law to provide that “Every human being shall have a natural right to life from the time of his conception” and gave a person who was damaged before birth a right to seek compensation. The Law set no time limits on the performance of abortions.
In addition, the law contained provisions obligating the Government to guarantee “free access to methods and means of birth control”, to provide social, medical and legal assistance during pregnancy and after childbirth, including material support and information on the rights, benefits and services available to families and unmarried mothers; to allow pregnant students maternity leave; and to introduce into schools classes on human sexuality, including information on birth control, responsible procreation, and the value of the family and the life of the unborn child. The provisions were designed to address the problem of abortion in ways other than restricting the performance of the procedure.
These amendments to Poland’s abortion law did not end the controversy. Because the Law had eliminated socio-economic grounds for abortion, woman’s groups and left-leaning political parties, including the successor to the Communist party, began working to modify its effects. Conversely, some of the strongest
opponents of the former law sought to restrict abortion even further, believing abortion to be immoral under all circumstances. The former groups were aided in their cause by the results of the next set of elections held in 1993. Owing in part to the hardships faced by much of the Polish population by the abrupt shift from a socialist economy to a capitalist one and the loss of many social benefits that had been taken for granted, a new Government made up of left-leaning parties, including the former Communists, gained control of Parliament.
One year after the elections, this Parliament, despite considerable opposition, approved a bill to allow abortions for socio-economic reasons. The bill, however never went into effect. To become law, it needed the approval of Poland’s President who is separately elected from Parliament. Because the President was opposed to abortion, he refused to sign the law, thus leaving in place the 1993 restrictive legislation.
Two years later, however, after another election resulted in a new president who was favourable to abortion law reform, the Government again introduced liberalized legislation. Parliament voted to amend the recent law to allow abortions to be performed on the grounds of difficult living conditions or a precarious personal situation up until the twelfth week of pregnancy. The pregnant woman would be required to undergo counselling, give written consent to the operation, and wait three days after the counselling until the abortion took place. The law once again allowed abortions to be performed in private clinics. It also set a 12-week limit for abortions performed on the grounds of health, foetal impairment or as a result of a criminal act (rape or incest), and provided for sex education in schools and cheaper contraceptives.
Enactment of the new law heightened the hostility of pro-life groups to the performance of abortions. Many legislators, religious leaders and health personnel opposed to abortion pledged themselves to counter its effect. At the same time, growing numbers of physicians and hospitals refused to perform abortions, as they were allowed to do under a conscience clause contained in the law. In some cities, there were no public institutions willing to perform abortions, leaving private clinics with much higher fees as the only resort for women seeking abortions. Some estimates were that almost half of all public hospitals in Poland had adopted this approach to the issue.
In addition, shortly after the passage of the amendments, a number of legislators moved to challenge the law’s constitutional validity before Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. They argued that, because the law allowed the performance of abortions, it violated provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing the rule of democratic law and social justice and the Constitution’s implied guarantee of the right to life. In its ruling later in the case in mid 1997, the Court essentially agreed with this argument. It pointed specifically to the part of the Law that allowed abortions on socio-economic grounds. It found this to be defective because of a lack of precise justified criteria as to what constituted difficult living conditions or a precarious personal situation and to constitute abortion on request. It reasoned that, without such criteria, the law did not sufficiently protect human life from the moment at which it arises, which it stated was a value protected under the Constitution, even though not so expressed. It concluded that the law amounted to authorization of abortion on request.
The effect of the decision was to give the Government six months’ time to enact new legislation conforming to the decision or to override it by a two thirds majority vote in Parliament. During this time, the provisions of the law were to remain in effect. The Government, however, was unable to override the Court’s decision by the required majority, and after elections that brought a pro-life majority to Parliament, Parliament voted to endorse the court’s decision and reinstate the former law of 1993.
It is difficult to determine the number of abortions being carried out in Poland. Official abortion statistics are believed to underestimate the true extent of abortion because it is not known how many abortions are performed in private out-patient clinics. For example, although there were 123,000 officially reported abortions in 1987, some estimates suggest that the actual number of abortions performed may have been from three to four times the official number. Underground private abortion services are robust in Poland, as is “tourism” abortion by Polish women who travel to neighbouring countries including, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia and Ukraine. Rough 1996 estimates suggest there may be 50,000 underground abortions a year.
The suspected high incidence of abortion is due to a number of factors, including shortages of low-cost, high-quality modern contraceptives, reliance upon less reliable natural methods of fertility control and a lack of comprehensive sex education programmes. The Polish Government is concerned about the high level of induced abortions and the lack of popularity of contraceptives. The modern contraceptive prevalence rate was estimated in 1991 to be 19 per cent.
The Government of Poland considers the current total fertility rate to be too low. Government policy is to encourage the well-being of the family as a whole. Towards this end
, the Government has created an extensive system of social benefits, including maternity leave, a three-year leave for child-rearing, an annual leave of up to 60 days for taking care of sick children, birth grants
, family allowances for low-income families, and loans and scholarships to assist student marriages. An alimony fund provides a minimum income to divorced mothers not receiving alimony. Moreover, family life education courses have been established in schools.
Population Policy Data Bank maintained by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the
United Nations Secretariat. For additional sources, see list of references.