By Daniel Tilles
Supporters of abortion on demand argue that polls show a majority of the public in favour of the idea. In fact, they do not, and the issue is likely to be one of the most difficult for Poland’s incoming new government to resolve.
When Poland’s newly elected parliament convened for the first time last week, The Left (Lewica) immediately put forward two bills to liberalise Poland’s abortion laws, which are the strictest of any EU country other than Malta.
One of them would introduce abortion on demand, allowing women to choose to have an abortion for any reason up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
Bills to introduce abortion on demand and decriminalise helping women obtain abortions were proposed on the first day of the new parliament by The Left, which is part of the coalition likely to form Poland’s next government https://t.co/44ePma36jo
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 14, 2023
That would not only undo the current near-total abortion ban, introduced in January 2021, which allows abortion in only two cases: if the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life or health; if it resulted from a criminal act (such as rape or incest).
It would also go much further than the previous abortion law, introduced in 1993 and widely known as the “abortion compromise”, which allowed terminations only in those two cases and also if a severe birth defect was diagnosed in the foetus.
The Left has long pushed for such liberalisation, but the difference now is that, while it has previously done so as an opposition party, it is currently part of a coalition of three groups almost certain to form Poland’s next government.
Under the outgoing national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, there was no chance of liberalising the abortion law. But the incoming trio – the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and The Left – have jointly agreed to end the near-total abortion ban.
The opposition groups likely to form the next government have signed a coalition agreement
They pledged to:
– restore rule of law
– annul the near-total abortion ban
– depoliticise public media
– prosecute anti-LGBT hate speech
– separate church and state https://t.co/lwQvGGok8s
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 10, 2023
Yet they differ on what to introduce instead: whether to return only as far as the pre-2021 status quo, or whether to go further than that.
Third Way has proposed holding a referendum to let Poles themselves decide. However, The Left has argued that not only should such a referendum not be held on principle – because basic human rights such as abortion should not be put to a plebiscite – but also because polling has already shown that most Poles want abortion on demand.
“A referendum on abortion is a waste of time and resources,” Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, an MP from The Left, said last week, explaining why The Left had proposed legislation to introduce abortion on demand.
— PAP (@PAPinformacje) November 15, 2023
“It is unnecessary. We already know that over 70% of Poles want safe, legal, free abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy,” she explained.
Speaking in August, ahead of the elections, one of The Left’s leaders, Magdalena Biejat, likewise said that “the facts are that all polls today show that almost 80% of Poles are in favour of legalising abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy without asking for reasons”.
“Therefore, we don’t need to ask Poles [in a referendum] what they think, we just need to introduce this law,” she declared.
— Gość Radia ZET (@Gosc_RadiaZET) August 21, 2023
Yet even if one accepts the premise that a referendum is unnecessary because polling already shows what the outcome would be, Biejat, Dziemianowicz-Bąk and other proponents of abortion on demand are misrepresenting those polls.
The majorities they refer to come from polls that do not specifically ask about abortion on demand. And those that do find that, in fact, only a minority of Poles support such a solution (although a large majority do want to end the current near-total abortion ban).
The polls the politicians are referring to from a series conducted in recent years by Ipsos for liberal news website OKO.press. They purport to show a large majority – 70% in the most recent poll, conducted in November 2022 – in favour of abortion in demand.
Another poll by Ipsos in March this year – also for OKO.press as well as radio station TOK FM – found that, if a referendum on abortion were held, 66% of the public would take part and, of those, 75% would vote to legalise abortion on demand.
However, the questions asked in those polls is: “In your opinion, should a woman have the right to terminate her pregnancy up to the 12th week of its duration?”
While some respondents may understand this as meaning allowing such terminations in any circumstances – i.e. abortion on demand – others could read it as simply allowing abortion up to 12 weeks in some circumstances.
That fact is borne out by other polls that ask much more specific questions about the circumstances in which abortion should be permitted.
For example, since the early 1990s state research agency CBOS has been asking such questions. It has consistently found only a minority (ranging between 14% and 28% over the years) answering “yes” when asked if a woman should be allowed to have an abortion simply because “she does not want to have a child” (i.e. abortion on demand).
Likewise, CBOS has always found that a minority approve of abortion because the mother is “in a difficult personal situation” (20% in this year’s polling) or “in a difficult financial situation” (21%).
By contrast, majorities support abortion when “it is known that the child will be born impaired” (62% this year), if pregnancy “results from rape or incest (80%), if it “threatens the mother’s health” (80%), or “threatens the mother’s life” (82%).
The most recent poll on this issue, published last week, also indicates that only a minority favour the introduction of abortion on demand, albeit it a larger minority than found by CBOS. The poll in question does, however, have one significant methodological drawback.
It was conducted this month by United Surveys for Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a newspaper, and RMF FM, a radio station. The question asked: “In your view, what should the government do regarding the abortion law?” It then gave six choices:
- Introduce legal abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, regardless of reasons
- Ensure that assisting with an abortion is not punishable by law
- Return to the so-called abortion compromise from before 2020
- Organise a referendum on abortion
- Keep the current legal status without change
- Completely ban abortion without regard for reasons (e.g. rape or a threat to the mother’s life)
The methodological problem is that the second option pertains to the separate issue of whether helping a woman obtain an abortion should remain criminalised. It is likely that many respondents in this poll support both option two and one of the other options, which relate to when women should be allowed to obtain an abortion. However, they could choose only one answer.
Nevertheless, only 34.7% picked option 1, which is abortion on demand. Even if that option was also supported by all 9.4% who picked option two, it would still represent a minority of respondents, 44.1%.
Meanwhile, 20.8% favoured returning to the abortion compromise, 12.5% said it would be best to hold a referendum, 8.9% want no change in the law, and 9% favour a complete ban on abortion. The remaining 4.8% had no opinion.
What is clear is that polling results vary, based in large part on what kind of question is asked and what answers are offered as options. There have been dozens of other polls in recent years in addition to the ones mentioned above, and each has produced somewhat different findings.
What is also clear, however, is that The Left’s claims that a large majority of Poles support “legalising abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy without asking for reasons” is simply untrue. Those results are only found in polls that specifically do not mention anything about asking (or not) for reasons. When surveys do mention the issue, support for abortion falls to a minority.
None of the above is to say that the new ruling majority should not introduce abortion on demand. Indeed, the fact that polling varies so much based on how questions are asked is one argument against a referendum, the result of which would be strongly influenced by the phrasing of the question.
The largest member of the likely new ruling coalition, KO, has exploited this ambiguity, pledging before the elections to introduce “legal, safe and free abortion up to 12th week of pregnancy” but without explicitly saying that this would mean abortion on demand.
However, with the new government set to come to power next month, KO will soon have to take a clearer position on this issue, which is likely to become a point of tension between it, The Left and the more conservative Third Way.
We answer 12 questions about Poland’s new government, including:
1. How will it be formed?
2. Will it be stable?
3. How will it tackle rule of law and abortion?
4. Can it unlock EU funds?
5. Will it face presidential vetoes?
Read our full analysis here⬇️https://t.co/oLK33waftV
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 23, 2023
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Main image credit: Klub Lewicy/Flickr (under public domain)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.