Reuters, November 9, 2004

UN Criticizes Polish Abortion Laws, Reopens Debate

WARSAW -- Poland's strict anti-abortion laws may lead women from the predominantly Roman Catholic country to risk their lives as some are forced to seek illegal and unsafe abortions, a United Nations (news - web sites) report says.

Poland's leftist government, a proponent of easier access to abortion, said the U.N. criticism should reopen a debate on the issue. Poland and Ireland have the strictest anti-abortion rules in Europe.

Under Polish legislation adopted in 1993, abortion is only allowed if a woman was raped, the pregnancy threatens her life or if the fetus is damaged. It replaced decades of virtually free access to abortion under communism.

"These regulations have to be changed but that needs serious discussion," Cezary Mizejewski, secretary of state at the Social Affairs Ministry, told reporters Monday.

"It is good that we have (the U.N.) report and it will reopen this discussion. We cannot keep to the old view that everything is fine and just close our eyes," he said.

Pro-choice groups such as the Dutch Women on Waves, which organized a boat with an abortion clinic to travel to Poland last year, estimate that there are up to 200,000 illegal abortions in the new European Union (news - web sites) member every year.

Doctors who perform illegal abortions face up to three years in jail.

The U.N.'s Human Rights Committee said in a review of Poland's civil and political rights that even women who were legally allowed abortions did not seem to be able to find hospitals willing to carry them out.

"The Committee reiterated its deep concern about restrictive laws in Poland, which might incite women to seek unsafe, illegal abortions, with attendant risks to their life and health," last week's report said.

Polish media have often reported on a flourishing backstreet abortion industry in the country, which shows that the law goes against common sense, Mizejewski said.

A bill sponsored by the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) that would allow all women to opt for abortion up to the 12th week of their pregnancy is due for a first reading in parliament but no date has yet been set.

The SLD has often pledged to relax the rules, but the influential Catholic Church and the center-right opposition are opposed. For some political parties on the right, the current law does no go far enough.

"Abortion should be completely outlawed ... Abortion is manslaughter, it's murder," said Anna Sobecka, a parliamentarian from the Polish League of Families, a Catholic opposition party.

"What is a baby, even one created by rape, guilty of that we commit him to death?"

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