Abortion has been effectively banned in Poland after officials ruled that terminations due to foetal defects were unconstitutional.
The constitutional tribunal made the ruling on Thursday, removing one of the few legal grounds for ending a pregnancy in the largely Catholic country.
After the ruling goes into effect, abortion will only be permissible in Poland in the case of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s health and life. These cases make up only around 2% of legal terminations conducted in recent years.
“[A provision which] legalises eugenic practices in the field of the right to life of an unborn child and makes the right to life of an unborn child dependent on his or her health… is inconsistent… with the constitution,” Julia Przylebska, head of the constitutional tribunal, said.
Poland joins Malta as the only other EU country to severely restrict access to abortion.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the tribunal building in Warsaw after the ruling, backed by 11 of 13 judges. Smaller protests also took place in the cities of Krakow, Lodz and Szczecin.
Marianna Dobkowska, 41, told Reuters: “It’s sick that such controversial things are being decided at a time when the entire society lives in fear [of the pandemic] and is afraid to go into the streets.”
Conservative values have played a growing role in public life in Poland since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came into power five years ago.
Curbing access to abortion has been a long-standing ambition of the party, but it has stepped back from previous legislative proposals amid a widespread public backlash.
Women’s rights and opposition groups reacted with dismay.
“The worst-case scenario that could have come true has come true. It is a devastating sentence that will destroy the lives of many women and many families,” said lawyer Kamila Ferenc.
Ms Ferenc, who works with an NGO helping women denied an abortion, added: “It will especially force the poor to give birth to children against their will.
“Either they have no chance of surviving, or they have no chance of an independent existence, or they will die shortly after giving birth.”
Opponents say the constitutional tribunal may have acted on the ruling party’s behalf. While the tribunal is nominally independent, most of its judges have been nominated by PiS.
PiS denies trying to influence the court or taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to push through the changes.