Transitions note: Poland's restrictive abortion laws force tens of thousands of women to travel abroad every year to end pregnancies. In January, the conservative government achieved a long-sought goal when a near-total ban on abortion took effect, further adding to the numbers of women seeking abortions in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. After initial confusion as to whether Czech doctors could legally perform abortions on Polish women, the authorities clarified that Czech and EU law permits abortions to be performed on EU citizens. Seeking to further clarify the existing law, which dates to the 1980s, a group of senators put forward an amendment to remove a clause prohibiting abortions for foreigners present in the country only temporarily.
A letter from the Embassy of Poland to the Czech Republic arrived at the Czech Health Ministry on 10 March. That is not an absolutely commonplace occurrence. “I cannot recall any similar letter, we are a ministry that is not usually a focus of diplomatic clashes,” Czech Deputy Health Minister for Radek Policar commented in an e-mail.
The two-page letter is signed by Polish charge d’affaires Antoni Wrega, and its content concerns an amendment to a law regulating the artificial interruption of pregnancy, currently under discussion in the Czech Senate, meant to clarify the conditions under which female foreign nationals in the Czech Republic can undergo abortions.
Wrega first assures the health minister that Poland respects Czech sovereignty, the legislative process, and the majority opinion of Czech society about abortion. “This same attitude and respect for democratic processes and cultural values, however, is what we also expect from the Czech side,” Wrega wrote. Among those democratic processes Wrega includes the decision by the Polish Constitutional Court, which handed down its ruling on abortions last autumn, as well as EU law, which allows each member state to set its own policies.
Senate adoption of the bill, according to Wrega, would lead to a blossoming of abortion tourism to the Czech Republic, making it possible for female citizens of Poland to break their own country’s laws, and that would also disrupt Czech-Polish relations. “From the standpoint of Czech-Polish relations we would perceive it to be unfortunate, for that reason, if such legislative proposals to legalize commercial abortion tourism were to be openly justified by an intention to circumvent the legislation in Poland, which protects unborn human life, if these proposals are meant to foment the breaking of Polish laws by female citizens of Poland. The adoption of such motivated legislation seems to us to be a step that is not in line with the excellent relations between our countries,” the Polish charge d’affaires wrote, closing his letter as follows: “For this reason, we would consider it highly non-standard if an attempt to directly interfere in the debate in Poland develops through these legislative changes.”
Jan Blatny, then the health minister, sent an answering letter on 30 March. He pointed out to the Poles that his ministry had only limited say on the Senate bill. He especially stressed, though, that according to the ministry's current analysis, carrying out abortions for female foreign nationals from EU countries, and therefore also for citizens of Poland, is in accordance with both Czech and EU law.
“From the above it follows that, according to the Health Ministry, the proposed [amendment] … would not lead to any essential change with respect to performing abortions for female citizens of EU Member States,” Blatny stated, adding: “I also believe the matter at issue will not have any impact on the quality of the so far excellent relations between our countries in the area of health care.”
Blatny’s successor as health minister, Petr Arenberger, referred to the Polish letter in mid-April during a meeting of the Senate Health Committee to review the amendment. While ministry staff and some senators do not believe the letter deviated from standard diplomatic communications (and that it is, moreover, in accordance with Poland’s longstanding position on this issue), those who submitted the amendment and some of their colleagues do consider the letter to have crossed certain lines.
“I do not believe this is a diplomatic incident,” Deputy Health Minister Policar wrote in his e-mail. “I do not assume that this could undermine Czech-Polish relations, and we also mentioned that to the Polish Embassy.” On several questions “we simply have different opinions, as is normal,” he wrote.
The chair of the Senate Health Committee, Roman Kraus, and vice-chair Tomas Fiala, expressed similar views. “Both countries are EU members, anybody and everybody expresses their opinions about laws, so why can’t the Poles?” Fiala said. “Poland is not interfering with the adoption of Czech legislation. The letter from the Polish charge d’affaires is just reacting to somebody’s clumsy statement that a bill about the artificial interruption of pregnancy is being submitted to make it possible for Polish women to get abortions in the Czech Republic,” Kraus said. “The bill has an absolutely different aim. It strengthens the legal certainty among Czech doctors, female and male, who perform such procedures for female foreign nationals that they are not committing a crime.”
The senators who submitted the bill [a group of centrist SEN 21 and left-wing Pirates party members], as well as some other senators, respect Poland’s different perspective; nevertheless, they take exception to the letter’s content and tone. “I do not see a reason why this law should disrupt our mutual relations. I believe they can express their view of the law, but that’s about all. Their perspective should not influence the Czech authorities’ attitude,” said another Health Committee vice-chair, Alena Dernerova.
“The issue of abortion in Poland is an enormous subject at this time and a strongly emotional one, so it’s not surprising they are speaking up,” said SEN 21 and Pirates club head Vaclav Laska. “On the other hand, its tone is rather sharp and does not correspond to what we are dealing with – we are handling the issue of abortion on our own territory, we are proposing domestic legislation for our doctors.”
For the time being, in any event, it does not seem the Polish pressure is bearing fruit – the Health Ministry supports the Senate bill, the Health Committee has given it the go-ahead, and none of the senators contacted plan to change their opinion under its influence. The Polish Embassy has not responded to our request for comment.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline