Polish MPs tighten liberal abortion law

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The Independent Online
AFTER four years of frequently bitter debate, Polish members of parliament yesterday voted to tighten the country's liberal abortion laws - but stopped well short of imposing the almost total ban supported by the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Under the new legislation abortions will no longer be available on demand, but doctors will not be punished for carrying them out in cases where a woman's life or health are at risk; where tests show that the foetus is seriously deformed; or where pregnancy has resulted from a crime.

In its original form, the draft law approved by the Sejm (lower house) yesterday envisaged prison terms of up to two years for doctors performing abortions in all cases except where the woman's life was in danger, and similar punishments for women caught inducing abortions on themselves.

Despite considerable pressure from the Catholic Church to pass the bill as it stood, MPs approved a string of amendments to the law which removed many of its harsher provisions and effectively struck a compromise between the extreme positions adopted by the country's pro- and anti-abortion camps.

In addition to allowing doctors to perform abortions in a greater range of cases, the amended law also removed the threat of punishment for women carrying abortions out on themselves and ruled that prenatal tests which do not harm the foetus would continue to be allowed.

While many MPs hoped the compromise formula would effectively end the debate over abortion that has raged ever since the Communists lost their grip on power in 1989, such an outcome was far from certain. Hanna Suchocka, the Prime Minister, was anxious not to be seen to be taking sides over the controversial issue and left the chamber before the vote.

Having passed through the Sejm, the law must now be approved by the Senate, a much more conservative body, and eventually by President Lech Walesa. Members of the Christian National Union, the staunchly Catholic party that originally proposed the law, expressed confidence that the Senate would insist on the restoration of many of its more restrictive clauses.

At the other end of the spectrum, Social Democrat MPs who are in favour of abortion condemned moves to restrict them at all - and vowed they would fight for the restoration of the current regulations, passed by Poland's Communist government in 1956, under which abortion has been available on demand during the first three months of pregnancy.

The initial response of the Church, seen by many as the main mover on the issue, was surprisingly restrained. Jozef Glemp, the Polish Primate, described yesterday's vote as a 'big step forward for the protection of unborn life' and expressed confidence that, through further education, more Poles would come round to rejecting abortion in almost all cases.

Recent opinion polls have shown that a clear majority of Poles still believe that women should be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to have an abortion and that, under no circumstances, should the process be criminalised.

Polish intellectuals, many of whom joined forces to gather more than one million signatures for a petition calling for a referendum over abortion, say that the issue underlines the alarming extent to which the Church is extending its influence over the country.