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Poland holds virtual protests against abortion bill during COVID-19 lockdown

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By Matthew Holroyd
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Poland holds virtual protests against abortion bill during COVID-19 lockdown
Copyright  Twitter - @n_goraleczko // @Juliivan_
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Human rights groups have launched an online protest against controversial bills in Poland on abortion and sexual education.

Polish MPs are set to consider new laws on Wednesday that pro-choice groups say would effectively ban abortions.

A second bill would also make it a crime to teach or promote sexual education to those under the age of 18.

But the coronavirus pandemic has meant that streets protests are not possible, as Poland has banned group gatherings as part of its state of emergency.

Human rights organisations say that the ban on abortion, and sexual education laws, "must not be rushed through under cover of COVID-19".

Campaigners have launched a "lockdown virtual demonstrations" under the hashtag #ProtestAtHome.

Thousands of activists posting selfies online, some even standing in front of the Polish Parliament to show that their message is targeted at Polish MPs.

“Attempting to pass these recklessly retrogressive laws at any time would be shameful, but to rush them through under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis is unconscionable," said Draginja Nadazdin, Director of Amnesty International Poland.

“These laws would fuel fear and ignorance, and further restrict access to abortion for women in a country whose abortion law is already one of the most restrictive in Europe."

“They would not only endanger the health and lives of women and girls but also obstruct young people’s access to the information that they need for healthy sexual relationships."

Organisations which providing sexual education, including teachers, outreach workers, and health care personnel, are also fearing that the new laws could land them in prison for up to three years.

Amnesty campaigners from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Slovenia, as well as Polish MPs, have also been sharing the hashtag to show their opposition to the bills.

A number of EU MEPs, including Terry Reintke of the Greens, have written a letter to Poland expressing their "deep concern" at the laws and have urged Polish MPs to reject the initiatives.

"We are convinced that measures that roll back protection for women's human rights and self-determination are of grave concern as they undermine a core European Union value of advancing gender equality".

Meanwhile the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has also expressed her "dismay" that bills would be reconsidered.

“In this extraordinary time of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and decision-makers must resist the temptation to push through measures that are incompatible with human rights”, added the Commissioner.

“Given its track record of undercutting the rule of law, it is fitting that the government would move to pass abusive laws when the public demonstrations that have met these laws before are prohibited,” added Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The Polish government’s focus during the pandemic should be to protect people’s health and rights, not diminish them.”

“The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to push through dangerous legislation.”

The new bill was first introduced in March 2018 but has received widespread outrage in Poland.

But both new laws are being debated as "citizens' initiatives" and have been supported by high-level politicians of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party.

The Polish Parliament has a legal duty to consider any new bills before May, six months after forming in the October 2019 election.

Poland already has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws and in theory only allows terminations in cases of rape, incest or when the health of the baby or mother is compromised.

A bid to ban abortion in 2016 was defeated in Parliament after tens of thousands of women demonstrated in the streets.