Walesa attacked for blocking abortion law

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The Independent Online
POLISH women's groups yesterday expressed outrage over President Lech Walesa's decision to block the passage of a more liberal abortion law already approved by both houses of parliament.

In a sharply worded protest, members of the Polish Feminist Association described Mr Walesa's action as a 'violation of women's rights' which defied the wishes both of parliament and the vast majority of Polish people. At the same time, they signalled their intention to continue pressing for an easing of the strict restrictions on abortion.

Under the law currently in force, abortions in Poland are only permitted in cases where the woman's life or health is in danger, the pregnancy has resulted from rape or when the foetus is irreparably damaged. Doctors performing abortions in other circumstances face two years' jail.

The law only came into force early last year after much fierce debate and considerable pressure from the powerful Roman Catholic Church. According to official estimates, the number of abortions in Poland last year was just 700 - down from the previous annual average of between 350,000 and 500,000.

The Polish Feminist Association says that at least three women have died as a result of self-induced abortions since the law was introduced. Countless others have suffered as a result of a boom in back-street abortions and a surge in 'abortion tourism' - specially organised trips mainly to former Soviet republics where pregnancies can be terminated on the cheap.

'Having abortions under those kind of medical conditions is extremely dangerous and damaging to women's health,' said Jolanta Plakwicz of the association. 'But the President only talks about the protection of unborn life; he never considers women.'

The dramatic failure of staunchly pro-Catholic parties in last September's general election and the success of the former Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) ensured that the abortion issue would flare up again.

Thanks largely to SLD backing, an amendment to the law presented by a group of women MPs in parliament last month passed comfortably. Under the amendment, women would effectively be able to claim abortions on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, as they could during the Communist era.

Justifying his veto of the amendment on Monday night, President Walesa, a devout Catholic with eight children, declared that 'no financial reasons could ever legitimise an attack on human life'.

A two-thirds majority in parliament will be required to override the presidential veto. Although opinion polls indicate that some 70 per cent of Poles are said to favour the more liberal law, most observers believe that the attempt to pass the amendment against Mr Walesa's wishes will fail.

Last week Mr Walesa said he might abdicate for one day to avoid signing the bill if the parliament mustered a two-thirds majority to overturn his veto.

(Photograph omitted)