Deputy PM Gowin wants to reframe the abortion ‘compromise’

Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the Agreement announced that his party will propose a compromise on abortion in the aftermath of the consitutional court ruling which made abortion on grounds other than rape, incest or the life of the mother being under threat illegal. It would consist of allowing termination of pregnancy in cases where lethal defects have been suffered by the fetus.

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The constitutional court ruling last week was made as a result of the interpretation of clauses of the constitution which protect human life. The court ruled that abortions on the grounds of there being the likelihood of disability or incurable disease were not in line with the consitution and that the clause in the family planning law which allowed them is consitutionallly invalid.

The ruling has led to mass protests in dozens of Polish cities. On Sunday demonstrators protested inside and outside churches. There have on earlier days been scuffles with the police.

Agreement party wants compromise

The Agreement party is one of the junior partners of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and is led by the Deputy PM and minister of development and technology Jarosław Gowin. The party is a liberal conservative one which has sometimes been reluctant to support some of the more radical stances taken by PiS.

Informing about Sunday’s decision taken by his party Jarosław Gowin tweeted that the “law must be the guardian of values, but it should not force women into acts of heroism”. The statement issued by the party makes clear that it sees life as beginning at the moment of conception and not birth.

The party has proposed that abortion should be allowed for mothers in cases of lethal defects to the fetus. It also proposes a sharp increase in benefits for parents who have children with disabilities at birth and greater state spending on therapy for such children.

Agreement in its statement also called for calm and reasoned debate on the matter. It condemned vandalism and acts of violence which have taken place during demonstrations against the constitutional court’s ruling.

The party’s stance will be backed by some PiS MPs such as the former deputy health minister, gynecologist Bolesław Piecha MP and Joanna Lichocka MP. Artur Dziambor MP from the radical rights Confederation has also supported such a compromise and it is likely that it will be supported by MPs from the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and some deputies from the Civic Platform (PO).

Consensus will be hard to achieve

But there will be many PiS MPs who will be skeptical. They will argue that the whole point of referring the matter to the constitutional court was to avoid the need for protracted parliamentary proceedings and that the court has ruled in favour of the sanctity of life as the highest value.

The left and many in the PO will argue that the ruling is invalid because of the fact that three of the judes on that court, were, according to the opposition, elected in violation of the constitution. And if they were to propose any legislation it would be for liberalisation of the abortion law in the direction of termination being available to women on demand in the early stages of pregnacy.

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Political wargaming

If the PiS leadership wanted to simply avoid a political conflict then the ruling of the constitutional court has made that impossible. The ruling has thrust abortion centre stage on Poland’s political scene.

The court itself is now highly politicised. The opposition sees it as being dominated by PiS nominees and under the influence of the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

PiS will be keen to show to the voters of the radical right Confederation and Catholic voters that it has delivered on one of the issues they care about. Identity issues can help to keep the ruling block together at a challenging time of economic crisis. Overreaction by pro-chocie radicals can also help the ruling party project itself as the advocate of law and order and traditional values.

For PiS it is understandable it wants such a controversial dispute to play out three years before any elections are due. The reasoning was similar, even if the reaction of the public was rather different, in the case of animal protection legislation. PiS had to take on a part of their electorate in rural areas to get the change the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński wanted. In the case of abortion he is finding that the reactions of parts of the public are much more radical and larger in scale than in the case of farmers protests over the animal protection legislation.

Opponents of the ruling party see it under pressure over the pandemic and the rule of law in the EU and now want to use abortion as a mobilising factor against the government. But there is a danger for them here. If the demonstrations become violent and directed at the church this could lead to a public reaction against the perpetrators.

There is no majority in Parliament for any liberalisation of the family planning law. No amount of demonstrations are likely to change that in the near future. But there could be a majority to referame the abortion compromise to ensure that children with Down syndrome live, but which allow termination of pregnancy in cases where the fetus has been lethally damaged.

But it does not follow that the demonstrations will stop should such a compromise actually be agreed. The rise in the number of COVID infections has not stopped them, so a ‘compromise’ which still sees the abortion law tightened still further than it was is even less likely so to do.

This is why some PiS politicians may reflect that a state of emergency may have to be declared to ensure a period of social calm for the fight against the pandemic. Stopping demonstrations could become more important than concerns about the government being perceived to be dictatorial at home and abroad. It is another matter whether a state of emergency would bring Poland such calm.

The abortion compromise which reuslted in the 1993 family planning law was never an easy one. But it has held for 27 years. Now that it looks to be gone it looks a highly explosive issue. Mr Gowin is trying to diffuse the tension, but his chances of doing so at this moment do not appear to be very high. Abortion is an issue which involves a fundamental clash of values between Catholic pro-life and secular pro individual choice.

For the Catholic Church this is an issue on which it cannot retreat because it is about the sanctity of life. The church may shift in its attitudes towards women and sexual minorities, but is most unlikely to move on abortion.