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Abortion protests rattle Polish ruling party, may prompt rethink

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has looked firmly in control since sweeping to power a year ago but it may have pressed its conservative agenda too far by initially backing a virtual ban on abortion.

Thousands of people gather during an abortion rights campaigners' demonstration to protest against plans for a total ban on abortion in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland October 3, 2016. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/via REUTERS/File Photo

Now, rattled by nationwide protests on Monday by up to 100,000 women dressed in black, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s government is trying to distance itself from a draft proposal backed by the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Worryingly for PiS, the protesters included women who voted for the party in last October’s election but say they may no longer do so over its attempt to tighten the abortion law.

Ola, a 29-year-old woman who works in public administration, said she had voted for PiS but now felt “very deceived” by the government.

“I still think liberalism isn’t always right. But I wore black on Monday and went to the protests,” said Ola, who declined to give her surname.

“I don’t support slogans such as ‘my pussy, not your issue’ and I don’t support abortion on demand but we don’t protect life by prohibitions but by supporting women who are pregnant or have problems,” she said.

Echoing such sentiments, Natalia, a 30-year-old landscape designer from the western city of Poznan, described herself as a practicing Catholic but said women should be allowed to exercise their personal choice on such important matters.

“What’s important for me is a situation when I would be pregnant or have to have prenatal testing. I would like to have a choice. Even if I am religious, I still think it’s a personal decision, a considered decision. The original rules were optimal,” she said.

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Poland already has restrictive rules on abortion that allow it only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother or baby have serious health problems. The new proposal, brainchild of the anti-abortion campaign group Ordo Iuris, would limit abortion to cases where the mother’s life was deemed in direct danger.

Women and doctors could face prison if convicted of causing what the proposed rules call “death of a conceived child”. Critics say doctors would be discouraged from doing prenatal testing, particularly if that carried the risk of miscarriage.

“There is nothing in that proposal that women can support,” said Sylwia, 21, who took part in the protest in Warsaw and said she may not vote for PiS again. “PiS keeps coming up with ideas which are just unsupportable.”

Such criticism matters for PiS, whose appeal is based on a blend of Polish nationalism, Catholic piety and promises to help poorer Poles who have not benefited much from a decade of heady economic growth. Some 40 percent of women backed the party last year, compared to 38 percent of the wider population.

“I want to state very clearly that the PiS government is not working on any legislation changing the rules on abortion in Poland,” Szydlo told a news conference on Tuesday.

“There are too many emotions surrounding this issue. The public and politicians should tone them down,” she said.

Underlining the confusion, the speaker of the upper house Senate, Stanislaw Karczewski, said on Wednesday that PiS lawmakers had dropped plans to push their own draft proposal that would ban abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome while retaining the other current exceptions.

“We will now see how the Ordo Iuris proposal fares in parliament,” said Karczewski.

An opinion poll for the liberal showed half of Poles supported Monday’s protests against the abortion proposal.

“PiS realises this is an important issue that could have meaningful impact on their government and how long it governs,” said Aleksander Smolar, a liberal political analyst with the Stefan Batory Foundation.

“They could lose the two sections of the electorate that helped them succeed,” he said, referring to women and to younger Poles who helped PiS broaden its traditional electorate last year and win a parliamentary majority.

But PiS also does not want to antagonize the Catholic Church, which has lost some of its sway among Poles after more than two decades of democratization and free market capitalism but remains an influential institution.

“For PiS, its relations with the Church hierarchy mean that it cannot agree to any easing of abortion restrictions. It will waver between the status quo and some tightening,” said Rafal Chwedoruk, a political scientist at Warsaw University.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Pawel Sobczak, Jakub Iglewski, Marcin Goclowski, Marcin Goettig, Bartosz Chmielewski, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Gareth Jones