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A major battle is brewing over abortion rights in Poland

A major battle is underway over abortion rights in Poland. The country’s constitutional court, whose legitimacy has been questioned by some, has made it even harder for Polish women to get abortions. The move has been condemned by the European Parliament and human rights groups like Amnesty International. Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the capital Warsaw.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A major battle is underway over abortion rights in Poland. The country's constitutional court — whose legitimacy is questioned in many quarters — has made it even harder for polish women to get abortions.

    The move set off mass demonstrations and has been condemned by the European Parliament and human rights groups like Amnesty International. As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the capital Warsaw, it's a fight for Poland's soul.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We're not going to let you sleep, chant the demonstrators. Their target is Poland's right wing-governing Law and Justice Party, and in particular, its arch-conservative leader Jaroslav Kaczynski, who most protestors believe is the puppet master behind the abortion crackdown.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These are the biggest demonstrations Poland has seen since the collapse of communism more than 30 years ago. Poland joined the European Union in 2004. And now, just 16 years later what we're seeing here is Poland moving away from core European values.

  • Kasia Bienkowska:

    Please Europe, and please world, support us. We can't be in this alone because we won't manage alone. So we need any help any support from all the world. All the world should know what is right now happening in Poland.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Kasia Bienkowska sported the symbol of the women's movement. So did Emanuela Zielinska. It's a red lightning bolt to represent women's strike as this slogan says. But the government claims it's the insignia of Adolf Hitler's brutal SS Corps. The women argue in placards like this that only Kaczinski's government is being authoritarian by dictating control of their bodies.

  • Emanuela Zielińska:

    I feel terrible. I feel like someone is throwing mud at me. It shouldn't be like this in a country where I'm supposed to feel free. I'm scared and disgusted with the government. It's shameless what they do. It shouldn't be like this.

  • Kasia Bienkowska:

    This is something unbelievable that all old men and Kaczinski, he is telling the young women what they have to do or not. This is unbelievable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Poland's bitter divide was apparent in parliament as Jaroslav Kaczynski confronted his opponents.

  • Jaroslav Kaczynski:

    First of all, take off those SS sing and secondly, all those demonstrations which you have supported and still take part in, all those demonstrations cost many people their lives, you have blood on your hands.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Opposition lawmakers responded by telling Kaczynski….you'll end up in jail.

  • Jaroslav Kaczynski:

    Once the rule of law returns, many of you will be in jail.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Kaczynski's politics are rooted in Poland's dominant faith, Roman Catholicism.

    This slogan compares Catholic dogma as being as fundamentalist as Islam's Sharia law.

    Church power forged Poland's historically tough abortion rules. Critics accuse the late Polish Pope John Paul II of exploiting his adulation to impose his will.

    Permitting legal abortion only in three circumstances — risk to the health or life of the pregnant woman; severe or irreversible impairment of the fetus; pregnancy following rape or incest. Now, Poland's highest court has outlawed the clause affecting malformed fetuses — the main justification for the majority of legal abortions.

    President Andrej Duda has suggested parliament should pass a compromise.

  • Radoslaw Fogiel:

    We are supporting the President's proposal.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Deputy government spokesman Radoslaw Fogiel.

  • Radoslaw Fogiel:

    In many cases a severe malfunction for the fetus also means a danger to the mother's life. The idea of this proposal is to make the law as precise as possible within the ruling constitutional code That will allow to protect the mother's life in cases like this.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Activists claim the new restrictions will force more Polish women to travel abroad to obtain abortions.

    We met Anna Urbanek at a Warsaw hotel. She went to the Netherlands to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

  • Anna Urbanek:

    It would be really really way better if we could do this in our own country. I felt a bit weird before my abortion, just before the medical procedure because I was so happy that I was going to stop being pregnant. And now I thank God, quite normal. And no, I never regretted it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Natalia Broniarcyzk runs a non-profit that advises women on abortions and helps them fix terminations in other countries. Their helpline is now inundated.

    She's livid that women are being forced to travel during the COVID pandemic.

  • Natalia Broniarczyk:

    This is putting us in a position where we have to risk our health, our life, we have to lie to our partners to our families because many women don't tell their families they are pregnant because of the stigma and they are afraid someone will judge them. I think that the situation shows that Poland is a very bad country to live in for women.

  • Karolina Pawlowska:

    Abortion is a violation of basic human rights especially the right to life. Every life should be protected before and after birth.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Lawyer Karolina Pawlowska is director of a well funded pro-life foundation that opposes the protest movement.

  • Karolina Pawlowska:

    I think the ruling of the constitutional tribunal of Poland is a great step towards full realization of human rights in our country, and that this ruling could also be an inspiration for other countries to protect human rights of everyone.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The abortion ruling is the latest Polish rejection of European Union norms.

    The government's dismissal of critical judges and replacing them with party loyalists was the subject of this Warsaw demonstration in July 2019.

    The European Commission then launched disciplinary action against Poland for undermining the independence of the judiciary.

    At the same time, hard-line local authorities were establishing what they called LGBT-free zones. A Pride march in the town of Bialystok was attacked by a mob of right-wing Poles.

    Back in Warsaw this week, prominent political scientist Roman Kuzniar was in no doubt what is happening.

  • Roman Kuzniar:

    It's part of the process going on in this country (for) a few years. The process which consists of redirecting from Europe towards Russia, towards a legal, authoritarian, nationalistic regime.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Baker Tomek Grabowski travelled 180 miles from Krakow in Southern Poland to register his disgust with the Law and Justice's Jaroslav Kaczinski. His tee shirt reads 'don't let the thief rule over you.'

  • Tomek Grabowksi:

    There are two Polands. And the split is more or less 50-50. There is a modern, open-minded tolerant Poland and there is this backward-looking, clerical, authoritarian Poland. They are in clash for the past five years. It's the last moment for us to defend the European values, to stay in Europe.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Members of the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the pro-abortionists. Frances Fitzgerald from Ireland.

  • Frances Fitzgerald:

    We in the European Parliament support you, we salute you, and we stand with you. Poland, 'Pieklo Kobiet', 'Women's Hell' – no more.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But legal expert Monika Platek dispels the notion that Europe's highest court might veto the abortion law.

  • Monika Platek:

    (The) European Court of Human Rights has no power to overturn the law. It can state that the situation we have in our country is breaching the convention of human rights, but it has no rights to tell (us) you have to change the law.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Professor Platek fears the abortion ban is part of a much more sinister strategy.

  • Monika Platek:

    It's like a battlefield. And they are checking how far they can move and take the human rights away from people. Women are just first.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These protests are evidence of growing turmoil within the European Union. The imminent departure of Britain with its reputation for moderation means that Poland will move up the European ladder and have a more powerful voice. The changing balance of influence is causing considerable unease across the continent.

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