Three former first ladies of Poland have attacked a proposal by the country's national conservative government to tighten already restrictive abortion laws.
The move by Danuta Walesa, Jolanta Kwasniewska and Anna Komorowska raises the stakes in an emotive debate that has brought thousands of women on to Polish streets in recent days.
“We view with great concern the idea of abandoning the . . . compromise of 1993,” the three wrote in an open letter, referring to the legal status quo in Poland. It bans termination except in cases of rape or incest, where the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s health or if the foetus is severely deformed – and in the first 25 weeks.
“Every abortion is a tragedy,” the three women wrote, “but we should not aggravate women’s tragedy by forcing them to give birth to children of rape or forcing them to risk their own life or health or that of their child”.
The compromise reached with Poland's influential Catholic Church in 1993 has, in the intervening years, been a source of constant legal battles, requiring Polish women to go to European courts to secure their legal rights.
Now Polish anti-abortion groups have backed a Bill in parliament to roll back the restrictive abortion Bill, allowing terminations only if necessary to save the mother’s life.
In addition, the Bill would increase from two years to five the maximum jail term for someone who performs an abortion. That has prompted demonstrations across Poland, with protesters waving wire coat hangers in concern that new restrictions would be a boon for back-street abortions.
Up to 1,800 legal abortions are performed each year in Poland, a country of 38 million, while women’s groups put at up to 150,000 the number of women who seek illegal abortions in Poland or terminations abroad.
The Bill was not introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) leadership, but by backbencher groups linked to pro-life organisations and the church.
But Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo has indicated she supports the Bill. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of PiS, reportedly urged the church not to pursue the Bill but, once presented, he said it had his backing.
“I am a Catholic, and the issue is obvious for me,” he said.
That prompted Danuta Walesa, wife of ex-president Lech Walesa, to go on national radio to urge the unmarried Kaczynski to "cop on".
“You don’t have children, you don’t have a wife,” she said on Radio Zet. “What do you know about the life of bees, seeing as you don’t even live in a beehive?”
Pro-choice campaigners have attacked Mr Kaczynski for allowing the Bill to gain momentum, recalling how his late brother, the then president Lech Kaczynski, and his wife Maria openly supported the status quo.
In 2007, Lech Kaczynski said the 1993 compromise “must not be undermined”. In the same year his wife Maria signed a petition urging that existing abortion legislation offer a “high enough standard of protection of life and dignity of the human being”.
Pro-choice campaigners in Poland fear the abortion move is the next stage in a broader conservative transformation of the country under PiS, after pushing into legal limbo the country’s constitutional court.
However some reports in Warsaw predict the PiS government will eventually drop the abortion proposal in a political trade-off, possibly accepting instead the introduction of religion as a school-leaving exam subject.