Robert Biedroń is a member of the European Parliament and chair of the FEMM Committee on women’s rights and gender equality.
During the Cold War, women from Western Europe would travel behind the Iron Curtain to access free and legal abortion services in Poland. However, the tables have since turned.
For the last 30 years, Polish women have been subject to increasingly restrictive abortion laws, culminating in the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, which introduced a near-total abortion ban in 2020, leaving them with fewer sexual reproductive health rights than in fundamentalist states like Iran.
Since the implementation of this barbaric law, at least six women have died because they were deprived of life-saving abortions — and those are just the known victims. They have names and mourning families. Many other cases remain unreported.
But Polish women and girls shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves. Brussels must take immediate steps against the country’s authorities and implement measures to protect women in Poland, so they can finally enjoy the same rights as those in Belgium, France or Germany.
The worrisome phenomenon of rolling back women’s sexual reproductive health rights isn’t exclusive to Poland. It’s the result of an organized and well-funded worldwide movement, orchestrated by organizations that, for many decades, have been pushing an anti-feminist agenda, gradually gaining significant influence over right-wing politicians and sponsoring policies undermining women’s rights. They’ve been active in several European countries, including Croatia, Italy, Slovenia and Spain.
In Poland, it is Ordo Iuris — an organization closely connected to the Catholic Church and the country’s ruling politicians — that became the driving force behind attacks on women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Their key “achievements” include bans on abortion and sexual education, as well as the creation of “LGBT-free zones.” They are also behind the country’s sinister pregnancy register — a database offering public prosecutors all the information and tools to hunt women accused of abortion, and may well lead to the criminalization of miscarriages.
Regrettably, however, the European Commission and the European Council have so far refrained from any action, claiming their hands are tied since abortion isn’t under their competence — but the European Parliament dares to differ.
Since the 2020 ruling, the Parliament has adopted two resolutions that not only condemned the violations of women’s rights in Poland but also urged its government to guarantee access to safe, legal and free abortion services. It has adopted the landmark Matić report as well, affirming that the right to abortion is a fundamental human right.
In addition, as the Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), we carried out a mission to Warsaw and held a hearing with the representatives of the families of the women who died because of this draconian law.
Both confirmed the immediate threat to women’s health and life in Poland.
Contrary to the assurance of the Polish authorities, access to legal abortion in the country is currently negligible — in 2021, only 107 abortions were performed among a population of 40 million. And the restrictive legislation also has a chilling effect on doctors, who refuse to perform abortions out of fear of criminal consequences. Polish women are thus forced into clandestine abortions or to seek help abroad.
Moreover, virtually no abortions are performed in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape — something that is now strongly affecting Ukrainian women as well, many of whom have been violated by Russian troops and fled to Poland during the war.
Gathering all this information has now enabled us to propose a package of recommendations the European Union should urgently adopt.
Firstly, we must remember that women’s rights are fundamental rights, and that member countries have a duty to uphold them. Polish women now have fewer rights than when their country joined the EU in 2004, which is why the Council needs to address Poland’s violations of women’s rights under Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU.
In the meantime, by including the right to abortion in the next EU health strategy, the Commission should ensure all women in Europe enjoy full sexual reproductive health rights.
Since many are forced to seek treatments abroad, we also need to find systemic solutions to facilitate this process. Thus, it’s necessary to co-finance NGOs that support women against oppressive governments, and we need to improve cooperation between member countries, so European women can access free and safe abortion services within national health systems.
The recent case of an American woman denied a life-saving abortion while on vacation in Malta is just one of many examples of this need. And it’s worth mentioning that this headline-grabbing case pushed the Maltese government to work on easing its anti-abortion law, the strictest in the EU, allowing for the procedure when a woman’s life or health is at risk.
On the grave of Izabela Sajbor, the first known victim of Poland’s barbaric abortion ban, there’s an epitaph that reads, “Not one more.”
This motto, the slogan of large anti-governmental protests dedicated to her memory, should be engraved on all our hearts. And at a time when fundamentalists are usurping the right in order to make political decisions, the EU must fight for women with even greater determination.
All European women have equal fundamental rights, and the bloc must be there to safeguard them — especially when their own governments are the ones endangering their lives.
That is why — together with the socialist fraction in the parliament — we’ve been working on an EU Charter of Women’s Rights. Something that will guarantee standardized access to sexual and reproductive health care, including legal and safe abortion, in addition to key socioeconomic and political rights.
And once this charter enters into force, “not one more” woman in Europe will be deprived of their fundamental rights, and the future will finally hold real gender equality.