Abortion Rights Battle in Poland: Changes Not Forthcoming?

Jacek Dalecki & Justyna Zając

The newly elected Polish parliament lists strengthening the rights of women as its sixth highest priority. Will protests demanding the right to abortion break out again?

LED BY Law and Justice (PiS), the conservative and far-right parties maintained a firm grip on power in Poland until the fall of 2023 when, in October, the opposition won the parliamentary election. A new more liberal government was sworn in by the President in mid-December.

After eight years of conservative rule, one could expect that the shift of power would lead to dismantling the current restrictive abortion laws. However proponents of abortion rights should be advised to lower their expectations.

In the heyday of the Cold War, Poland was one of the first countries in the Soviet bloc to legalize abortion. In 1956, the act of the Polish parliament allowed for termination of pregnancy in the case of a medical recommendation, due to the difficult living conditions of a woman, and when the pregnancy was a result of an unlawful act. Three years later, the Ministry of Health issued a regulation which, in practice, permitted abortion on demand.

Fast forward to the collapse of Communism and the ensuing democratic resurgence. In 1993, acting under the heavy clout of the Catholic Church, the Polish parliament limited the right to terminate pregnancy to three instances: when pregnancy posed a threat to the health or life of the woman, when there was a high probability of “severe and irreversible impairment” of the fetus, and when pregnancy resulted from a criminal act.

The law remained intact until the conservative and far-right parties came to power in 2015. Reaping the fruits of their electoral victory, the conservative MPs endorsed a blanket ban on abortion as drafted by the ultra-conservative NGO Ordo Iuris.

After MPs initially abandoned their proposal following the massive street protests, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal — whose legitimacy and independence have been widely questioned — came to their rescue. In October 2020, it ruled that termination of pregnancy even on the grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional.

Considering that, prior to the Tribunal’s decision, over 90% of legal abortions had been performed because of impaired fetal growth, the Tribunal’s decision meant a near-total abortion ban.(1)

Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

In the October election, three political groupings — the center-right Civic Coalition, the Christian-democratic Third Way, and the progressive Left — won the absolute majority in the parliament, receiving 30.7%, 14.4%, and 8.6% of votes, respectively.

Among the three partners, only the Left seems ready to propose meaningful changes. The electoral campaign of the Left — a loose alliance of five small parties — frequently featured women who have been fighting for women’s rights for years. Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, Wanda Nowicka, Dorota Olko, and Joanna Izabela Scheuring-Wielgus have been among the most recognizable faces in the struggle for abortion rights.

In mid-November, at the opening session of the new parliament, the Left announced two bills aimed at liberalizing the current abortion law. One proposed a complete legalization of the right to terminate pregnancy up to the 12th week of gestation. The other proposed to decriminalize those who assisted in an abortion.

At the time of this writing, the Left upped the ante, amending its original proposal to permitting abortions until the 24th week. Accord&ing to the Left, this revision reflected the guidelines of the World Health Organization.

But being a junior partner in the coalition, the Left desperately needs the support of its political partners. It is doubtful whether this support will materialize.

Evasive We Stand

Four weeks after the election, the coalition signed an agreement that outlined 24 objectives for a future government coalition. The goal of strengthening the rights of women — without explicitly mentioning the right to abortion — was listed as number six.

At first glance, this elevated position appears promising. Yet declarations should not be conflated with the coalition’s willingness and commitment to standing up for women’s reproductive rights.

For the Civic Coalition, the question of abortion rights has been a political hot potato. On the one hand, during the election campaign the Coalition promised to introduce legislation to allow for abortion through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Donald Tusk, the Coalition’s leader, warned that only those who support abortion rights would be placed on the party’s slates.

On the other hand, the Coalition was quick to recognize the divisive nature of abortion politics and allowed its MPs to “vote their conscience” when their beliefs would be at odds with the party line. In the same vein, the Coalition did not formally propose any legislative initiatives to amend the legal status quo.

The leaders of the Christian-democratic Third Way — Szymon Hołownia and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz — have openly expressed their opposition in principle to legalizing abortion.

Hołownia, a former TV personality and a new speaker of parliament, used to assure the viewers of his YouTube show “God in Big City” (a biblical reference to sacrificing freedom in order to survive), that, for him, abortion “was always a murder… killing of an innocent being.” He dreamt of the times “when abortion was banned.”(2)

As one of the commentators, Katarzyna Przyborska, poignantly concluded, Hołownia would support reproductive rights “once he got pregnant.”(3) Kosiniak-Kamysz, a licensed dentist and a devout Catholic, has regularly emphasized that abortion was a matter of one’s beliefs, religion, and values. Both leaders have also underscored that a decision on whether to ease access to abortion should be made by the people.

Not surprisingly, Hołownia and Kosiniak-Kamysz have been pushing the idea of a nationwide referendum on abortion. Both have been aware that even if the referendum turned out in favor of liberalizing the abortion law, President Andrzej Duda, a vocal opponent of abortion, was expected to disregard its result.

The Public Is Not in the Mood

What also works against the Left’s plans is the lack of societal consensus on the extent of abortion rights.

On the one hand, thousands of Poles took to the streets in 2016 to protest the legislative proposal that would limit access to abortion in all cases except to protect woman’s life.(4) More demonstrations followed in response to the 2020 Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling.

On the other hand, according to the 2016 Public Opinion Research Center survey, half of Poles believed that access to abortion should be restricted or even banned. The subsequent studies of public attitudes reflected the results of the 2016 survey.

In the public opinion polls conducted in April 2023, most respondents agreed that abortion should be legally allowed only in three instances: when a mother’s life or health were at risk (82% and 80%, respectively), when pregnancy was the result of a criminal act (80%), and when it was known that the child would be born handicapped (62%).

Only one-fifth of the public supported the right to abortion in the case of a difficult material situation (21%) personal circumstances (20%), or a woman’s decision not to have a child (18%).(5)

What the Political Crystal Ball Tells Us

The Left faces an unenviable conundrum. Poland is one of only two European Union member states that has not legalized abortion on broad social grounds.

Undoubtedly, the Left would like to see the difficult living circumstances included among the conditions for the admissibility of abortion. Yet this sentiment can be easily interpreted as a longing for rights once granted to women during the Communist past — hardly a selling point in the post-1989 political climate.

The views of the majority of Poles reflect a general unfavorable attitude toward termination of pregnancy. At best, the public may be willing to support the 1993 act that had already severely limited access to abortion, well short the Left’s hopes.

Reading the tea leaves, the Left’s coalition partners chose the strategy of avoidance and evasiveness. Paradoxically, the views on abortion of the key politicians of the Civic Coalition and the Third Way are closer to that of the Law and Justice than the Left.

When Jarosław Kaczyński, the gerontocratic leader of PiS, declared that a fetus “who was destined to die” should be “baptized, buried, and have a name,”(6) his words could also be attributed to the key personas of the anti-Law and Justice alliance.

The outcome of the 2023 election in Poland is said to ease the worries of those “concerned about the risk of entrenched illiberalism.”(7) Alas, the prospects of extending abortion rights in Poland remain bleak.


  1. “Poland: Regression on abortion access harms women,” Amnesty International, January 26, 2022.
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  2. “Szymon Hołownia o aborcji: Marzę o tym, żeby była zakazana,” Niezależna, November 18, 2023.
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  3. Katarzyna Przyborska, “W sprawie aborcji potrzebujemy cudu,” Krytyka Polityczna, November 14, 2023,
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  4. Justyna Zając, “Poland: Women’s Mass Protests,” Against the Current, No. 217, March/April 2022.
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  5. “Polish Public Opinion,” CBOS, 4/2023,
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  6. Dominika Sitnicka, “Aborcja w programach wyborczych,” OKO Press, August 9, 2023.
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  7. Pawel Zerka, “Message in a ballot: What Poland’s election means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations, October 18, 2023.
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January-February 2024, ATC 229

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