March 23, 2018 / 5:03 PM / 6 months ago

Thousands join 'Black Friday' marches against Polish abortion restrictions

WARSAW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Poles dressed in black protested across the country on Friday against an attempt by the ruling conservatives and the powerful Catholic Church to ban most abortions.

The “Stop Abortion” draft bill, opposed by numerous rights groups, would remove the main legal recourse Polish women have for getting a termination in a country that already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union.

“I am against treating woman as an inferior type of human being,” Malgorzata, 58, a psychologist who joined the “Black Friday” protest in Warsaw told Reuters. “I support women’s rights to decide about their bodies and their lives.”

Under current rules, abortion is allowed in three circumstances — danger to the mother’s health, rape or incest, and when prenatal tests show serious, irreversible damage to the foetus.

The bill, already approved for further debate by the lower chamber of parliament in January and by a parliamentary committee earlier this week, would remove the third category, which currently covers more than 90 percent of legal abortions.

It is the second bid by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to tighten abortion rules. In 2016, after about 100,000 people joined protests and support for PiS declined, the party rejected a bill that would have imposed a near-total ban.

HEALTH, RIGHTS

Several thousand protesters gathered near the parliament building in Warsaw, with banners reading: “Woman is a Human Being Not an Incubator” and “We Are Going after Law and Justice”.

The protesters chanted “freedom of choice instead of terror”.

Protesters gather during a protest against plans to further restrict abortion laws in Warsaw, Poland March 23, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Dawid Zuchowicz via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN POLAND. *** Local Caption *** hniki Warszawa

A Warsaw city spokesman said about 55,000 people took part in the protest in the capital, the largest one in the country. Police gave a lower estimate at 20,000. Thousands of people participated in other major cities.

A group of U.N. human rights experts called on parliament to reject the bill, saying it risked causing serious damage to women’s health.

“Preventing women from accessing safe and legal abortion care jeopardises their human rights,” Nils Muiznieks of the Council of Europe human rights group said.

In Poland, causing the death of a foetus — apart from cases where is it legal — carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. Women that have terminations are not penalised.

A survey conducted by IBRiS pollster in January showed that 70 percent of Poles are against the proposed restriction.

But after the 2016 setback for anti-abortion campaigners, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said his party would strive to amend laws to make sure that even severely deformed foetuses were born so they could be “baptised, buried, and be given a name”.

Polish Catholic bishops called in March on lawmakers to show “unconditional respect for every human being in all moments of its existence”.

The PiS party has close ties to the Catholic Church and depends on its support in elections.

Jerzy Kowalewski, a 70-year-old retired sociologist, said the protest was an opportunity to express his opposition to the PiS government.

“(The abortion issue) is a political calculation. PiS wants to curry favours with the Catholic Church,” he said. “If they say abortion is murder, why not punish it like murder, with 25-year prison terms.”

Slideshow (14 Images)

Reporting by Anna Koper and Marcin Goettig; Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Writing by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Catherine Evans

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