The Polish government on Wednesday implemented a decision in a constitutional court banning termination of pregnancies with birth defects, as conservative policies are increasingly rooted in one of Europe’s most devoted Catholic countries.
The October 22 ruling had led to weeks of massive protests, forcing the Nationalist Government (PiS) to postpone implementation.
Small protests gathered late on Wednesday after an announcement PiS would take the official step to enforce the decision immediately, and abortion rights activists announced that more would take place on Thursday.
Abortion has emerged as one of the most divisive issues since PiS took power in 2015, promising poorer, older and less educated Poles a return to a traditional society mixed with generous welfare policies.
The court’s ruling was published in the official newspaper late on Wednesday.
“This idiotic decision will not prevent abortions,” said Cezary Jasiński, a 23-year-old student standing in front of the Constitutional Tribunal building in central Warsaw.
“But for every woman who will experience pain because of this decision, or will be forced to give birth to a child with Down’s syndrome, they (court judges) will be to blame.”
Last year’s protests quickly turned into an outburst of anger against the government, especially among young people, suggesting that PiS may face a new challenge from new voters in the coming years.
On Wednesday, officials said the government would now focus on helping parents of disabled children, although PiS as well as its centrist predecessors have been accused by critics of not doing enough in that regard.
“The state can no longer take away a life just because someone is ill, disabled, in poor health,” said PiS legislator Bartlomiej Wroblewski.
The party denies opposition criticism for influencing the court, called the Constitutional Tribunal. It is one of the judicial bodies that PiS revised during reforms that the European Union said has politicized the courts.
“No law-abiding government should respect this decision,” Borys Budka, leader of Poland’s largest opposition party, the centrist civic platform, told reporters.
Access to abortion has decreased even without the passage of legislation as more doctors refuse to perform them on religious grounds and many women seek abortions abroad.
Under the new rules, dismissals are only permitted in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life or health is endangered. Doctors performing illegal abortions in Poland are jailed.
In a justification published on Wednesday, the court left the possibility that the parliament would regulate certain circumstances covered by the law.
Marek Suski, a PiS legislator, said the party would consider introducing new rules that could rule out the most extreme birth defects. But political commentators say a consensus between the PiS and its arch-conservative ruling allies would be difficult to reach.
“In cases where the fetus does not have a skull or has no chance of living outside the womb, there should be a choice. We will work on this,” Suski told public radio.
Opinion polls have shown some decline in PiS popularity in recent months, but an opinion poll by the government-affiliated CBOS survey showed it rose back to 35% this month, from 30% in October. PiS and its two small parliamentary allies won the 2019 re-election with 44% of the vote.