An October 2020 decision from Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal made abortion illegal except in cases of incest, rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. Specifically, it ruled that abortion due to fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional — effectively outlawing about 98 percent of the abortions that had been taking place in Poland. Proponents of the restriction argued that it was, in part, a way of preventing the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome.
Belgium’s secretary of state for gender equality, Sarah Schlitz, announced Tuesday a donation of roughly $12,000 to Abortion Without Borders, an initiative by six abortion rights organizations in four countries that helps women in Poland access safe abortions outside the country. Poland began implementing a near-total ban on abortion earlier this year.
Belgium’s move — the first such action by an E.U. state over Poland’s tighter abortion rules — was timed to coincide with international “Safe Abortion Day.” Schlitz told The Washington Post she hopes other countries will follow suit.
“Belgium is a country that is advanced on the questions of women’s rights, of sexual and collective freedoms, of the rights of LGBTQ+ people as well. … This allows us to show the way,” she said, calling safe abortion access a “fundamental right.”
Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network and a member of Abortion Without Borders, hailed the announced donation as “a true act of solidarity.”
Rights groups accused Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is closely tied to the influential Roman Catholic Church, of taking advantage of the pandemic to push through the restriction. The party has been accused of stacking the Constitutional Tribunal with its supporters, and the European Union has raised concerns over the erosion of judicial independence in Poland.
The October abortion ruling sparked the largest anti-government protest movement since the fall of communism more than three decades ago, as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets. Surveys indicate a majority of Poles oppose the change.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament denounced the abortion restriction, and the European Union warned about the erosion of fundamental rights in Poland. The European Union, however, does not have legal control over how member states regulate abortion.
“We are observing these days a regression and attacks from conservative governments against the rights of women, and in particular, the right to abortion, which is a very strong symbol of the emancipation of women,” Schlitz said. “We, with this signal here, show resistance and that we will not let this happen.”
In the six months following the court ruling, Abortion Without Borders said it was contacted by 17,000 people seeking help with obtaining abortions, and it continues to receive around 800 calls per month.
While other countries including Argentina and Thailand have recently moved to ease access to abortion, she noted, “within the European Union, in the middle of the covid-19 crisis, we have seen a considerable regression.”
Poland scores close to last in a ranking by the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF) of 52 European countries on legal frameworks to access safe abortion care. Belgium, where abortion is legal up to 12 weeks after conception, falls in the top 20 percent. The majority of European countries — and nearly all E.U. member states — allow abortion on a woman’s request or on broad social grounds, according to a study by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Polish government has tacitly allowed women to leave the country to obtain abortions, Schlitz said, meaning that the abortion restrictions can disproportionately affect poor women. The Belgian subsidy will go toward logistical costs for women who lack the financial means so they can obtain abortions in Belgium, Germany, Britain or the Netherlands. It came shortly after Polish antiabortion campaigners pushed for even more restrictive measures.
Irene Donadio of IPPF called Belgium’s donation “the first tangible sign of solidarity from a government” following the Polish restrictions and “an amazing precedent.”
“Symbolically, it’s extremely important,” she said. “It’s fundamental for Polish women, for Polish media and for the Polish government to see that everybody is watching them.”
Abortion Without Borders also helps women access abortions at home via pills. Abortifacient pills are booming worldwide, and interest in medication abortion has spiked in Texas following the passage of a law sharply restricting abortions. In Washington, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing Thursday to “examine the threat to abortion rights and access” from some state governments and the Supreme Court.
In addition to abortion access, the European Union and Poland have also seen tensions flare over LGBTQ rights. Also this week, several Polish regions that had declared themselves to be “LGBT-free” zones repealed those declarations after the European Union threatened to cut off millions of euros in funding to anti-LGBTQ local and regional governments.