“Women’s bodies are under attack.” This was one of the many messages conveyed during Wednesday afternoon’s plenary debate on abortion rights in Poland.
Many MEPs, wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Strajk Kobiet” (“Women’s Strike”) expressed their anger at the ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal in late October that legislation allowing women to seek an abortion on the grounds of severe foetal impairment was “incompatible” with the constitution.
The only grounds for accessing an abortion in Poland is now in the case of rape, incest, or if there is a threat to the mother’s life.
Opening the debate, European Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli said, “High-quality sexual and reproductive health services are essential to women and girls. This includes access to contraception, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, fertility and sex-specific cancers, and access to abortion.”
“From a legal perspective, it is clear that the EU has no competence on abortion rights within a Member State. Legislation in this area is up to the Member State concerned. I will state factually that the recent decision by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal has restricted Poland’s abortion law.”
“In the weeks following the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, we have seen how many Polish citizens have taken to the streets; civil society, women and men protested in Poland. And I wholeheartedly hope that these voices are being heard and listened to. Strong women’s rights are an asset and an achievement which the whole of Europe must be proud of. But progress is hard won and easily lost, and we see this in Europe and worldwide.”
“In the last few months the Polish government has done everything it could to strip women of their right to self-determination and deny them of their power to take decisions over their own bodies” Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee
Next to take the floor was Irish EPP MEP Frances Fitzgerald, who said that Poland is under attack. “It is under attack from within, from a government and political party, and from a belief that doesn’t respect fundamental values, including the rule of law and women’s rights.”
“Let us remember all over the world: women’s rights are human rights. A party that seeks to sabotage the very institutions that built a democratic Poland, that sought to uphold guiding principles after the fall of communism, where once the solidarity movement took to the streets amidst a tidal wave of support for fundamental values, now a pitiful government cowers behind Mr. Kaczyński as he tries to tear down the very essence of democracy – human rights – and the rule of law.”
Spanish S&D Group leader Iratxe García Pérez said it was “utterly unacceptable” that in in the twenty-first century in a Member State of the European Union the rights of women are being attacked, as is the case today in Poland.
“This is a situation of injustice and the Parliament has to stand up and say no, as is taking place in the streets of Poland, where hundreds of thousands of women are standing up and calling for their rights to be respected. It’s utterly unacceptable that a Constitutional Court controlled by the government of Mr. Kaczyński wants to attack one of the fundamental rights of women – to decide on our own bodies, on whether we have children or not.”
She added, “We can’t allow our daughters to have fewer rights than their mothers, and that is what is happening at the moment in Poland.”
Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, started her speech by directly addressing the women’s rights protesters in Poland and beyond, saying, “Your actions matter. Not only in Poland, all over Europe, and therefore a big thank you.”
“We can’t allow our daughters to have fewer rights than their mothers, and that is what is happening at the moment in Poland”
Iratxe García Pérez, S&D Group leader
“In the last few months the Polish government has done everything it could to strip women of their right to self-determination and deny them of their power to take decisions over their own bodies. But women have to be able to decide themselves whether or not they wish to terminate a pregnancy. The so-called ‘Constitutional Tribunal’ in its decision is attacking the rights of women throughout Europe.”
“This ban will just lead to more women putting themselves in danger by undertaking clandestine abortions.”
Danish Renew Europe deputy Karen Melchior said, “To have equality we have to have the right to determine over our own bodies. The right to an abortion is simply a pre-condition for equality. Equality is a European value which is written into the Treaty and the right to have an abortion should not be a political struggle; it’s a right.”
“The Polish government has turned this into an ideological fight; during the last five years they have been leaving the values which bind us together in Europe. The rule of law is under attack, and women’s bodies are under attack. The right to abortion is slowly being stolen from Polish women.”
Melchior concluded by saying, “I am not free in Denmark until all the women in Poland are free, because we all have to be free in Europe.”
Swedish GUE/NGL MEP Malin Björk said that the attack on abortion rights is “one of the most brutal ways to control our lives and to control and install patriarchal values in society.”
“Strong women’s rights are an asset and an achievement which the whole of Europe must be proud of. But progress is hard won and easily lost, and we see this in Europe and worldwide”
Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality
“It’s also part of a bigger picture of these right-wing conservative parties to install ever more authoritarian rule. They want to control the courts, the media, civil society, and we have to say stop. Women’s lives are on the line here.”
Greens deputy Terry Reintke said that nothing that is currently happening in Poland should come as a surprise, adding, “Fundamentalists and authoritarians are taking political control of the judiciary, and what is the first thing they do? They take away the rights of women, of LGBTIs and others.”
Polish S&D MEP Robert Biedroń told the story of a young Polish woman who was raped and who wanted to terminate her pregnancy. She went from one doctor to another, but none were prepared to carry out the abortion.
“So she was forced into the ‘abortion underground’, as we call it, going for a clandestine abortion with all of the risk that that entails. This is the Poland of 2020 – it is a hell for women.”
Renew Europe deputy Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, herself a surgeon-gynaecologist, said, “We are debating abortion rights in 2020 in Europe. This is because these conservatives, these so-called evangelicals, are supposedly defending life, the right to life.”
“Illegal abortion also causes problems when it comes to the right to life, through all sorts of consequences such as hemorrhaging and it can even be fatal for women. The right to abortion is a right that needs to be respected. Polish women have had enough, European women have had enough, and so has the European Parliament.”