Pro-life Poles seek to tighten restrictive abortion law

Warsaw (AFP) - Pro-life activists in Poland want to tighten an abortion law that is already one of the most restrictive in Europe, but the move risks a backlash against the new right-wing government.

The anti-abortion movement in the devout EU country, where 90 percent of residents identify themselves as Roman Catholic, has also set its sights on the morning after pill and test-tube babies.

The activists have been buoyed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party's return to power in November after eight years in opposition. The conservatives' victory was also cheered by many priests, given the party's embrace of Catholic social doctrine.

Poland's abortion law, dating from 1993, bans all terminations except when the pregnancy results from rape or incest, poses a health risk to the mother, or if the foetus is severely deformed.

An opinion poll published Thursday by Poland's centrist Dziennik Gazeta Prawna found that 51 percent of Poles want the existing abortion law to be liberalised.

Pro-life groups however are seeking to make the law a virtual ban. This month they tabled a citizen's bill in parliament to only allow abortion to save the mother's life.

Individuals who perform illegal abortions would also be punished by up to five years in jail, instead of the current maximum of two years.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of illegal abortions in Poland or women who undergo the procedure at clinics in nearby countries like Austria, Germany and Slovakia.

Media estimates suggest that every year between 100,000 and 150,000 Poles turn to abortion tourism, with transportation and service by Polish staff included.

Legal abortions in the country of 38 million people are limited to around 700 to 1,800 per year.

- 'Violates women's rights' -

The new abortion bill needs 100,000 signatures to be examined by the PiS-controlled parliament -- a likely event that could be a dilemma for the party's leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

He could be loathe to tackle the hot button issue that divides Poles, especially since he is already embroiled in disputes over controversial reforms to the constitutional court.

While the pro-life proposal is in line with the party's values, suggesting that the PiS majority would vote it into law, Polish media has speculated that Kaczynski would rather avoid backlash over the issue.

The centrist daily Rzeczpospolita claims that Kaczynski sought to convince Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Episcopal Conference, that such public debate would pose a risk that could even topple the PiS government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.

The proposal has already drawn criticism from feminist circles, which point out that UN agencies consider banning access to legal abortion a form of torture.

"To adopt this text on abortion would be a violation of human rights and women's rights," feminist activist and literary critic Kazimiera Szczuka told AFP.

She said she also expects opposition from the medical community: "Were we to see many children born with serious health problems, this will represent a considerable cost for hospitals."

The pro-life activists have also been campaigning against state funding of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, which was introduced by the previous liberal administration but which the PiS government has decided to let expire in July.

That decision has already met resistance with several large cities -- such as Czestochowa in the south, central Lodz and Poznan in the west -- deciding to fight back by funding the procedure on their own.

IVF treatment is used by couples unable to conceive and consists of fertilising an egg outside a woman's body to produce an embryo that can then be implanted in her womb.

An opinion poll published last July found 75 percent of Poles favour IVF treatment for married couples.

Abortion opponents have also been targeting the morning after pill, an emergency contraceptive that they liken to abortion and which is sold over the counter in Poland under the brand EllaOne.

Last week a Warsaw association of Catholic doctors urged Health Minister Konstanty Radziwill to ban EllaOne in a statement invoking "the depravity of children and youth".

Radziwill responded that the pill would soon become prescription-only.