European Court of Human Rights notifies Warsaw of 12 cases linked to abortion ban

Women protest the newly-introduced, prohibitive abortion law Warsaw on January 27, 2021
Women protest the newly-introduced, prohibitive abortion law Warsaw on January 27, 2021 Copyright Czarek Sokolowski/AP
By Hannah Somerville
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The applicants, all Polish women, say the law change that came into effect in January 2021 breached their human rights.


The European Court of Human Rights has notified the Polish government of 12 separate cases being brought against it by Polish women over abortion rights.

A near-total ban abortions came into effect in Poland in January 2021, prompting mass protests in the country and condemnation from across the EU.

The legislation made it almost impossible to terminate a pregnancy legally in Poland except in cases of incest, rape, or when the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother.

On Thursday the ECHR said it had received more than 1,000 complaints about the law change so far. It has now asked Warsaw to submit its responses to 12 of them.

The cases against Poland

The applicants are all Polish nationals who were born between 1980 and 1993. Their cases have been divided by the court into three groups of four.

After the law change, they argue, certain Polish hospitals refused to perform abortions in cases of "non-lethal" foetal abnormalities.

One of the complainants, a 27-year-old woman, said her partner suffers from a chromosome-related condition that put her chances of a healthy birth at below 50 percent. If she gets pregnant, there is a serious possibility that she will have a miscarriage or the baby will die.

As such, the woman said, the Polish Constitutional Court's judgement and its patchy application in hospitals had had "a chilling effect" on her family plans.

Another woman, a 40-year-old undergoing IVF treatment, said she would not undergo a fourth cycle in Poland out of fear that she could be forced to give birth if foetal defects were found. She described the situation as being one of "mental torture".

Most of the other complainants were either pregnant or planning to start a family at the time the law came into force in January. But one woman said she had already travelled to the Netherlands for a termination after discovering her unborn child had a rare but serious condition known as Edwards Syndrome, or Trisomy 18.

Her submission read: "The applicant submits that she suffered stress on account of the physical and phycological impact of her travelling abroad for an abortion, notwithstanding the financial burden this situation entailed."

What happens next?

All 12 of the applicants say they are potential victims of a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), because of the distress caused to them by the prospect of having to give birth to an ill or dead child.

They also say the Polish government has infringed their rights under Article 8 of the Convention (the right to respect for private and family life), because if they became pregnant, they could be obliged to carry the foetus to term, and have to adapt their lives and conduct accordingly.

The legal changes that came into effect in Poland on January 27 this year were the result of a ruling in October 2020 by four judges in the Constitutional Court.

The applicants also say the ruling was not "prescribed by law" because three of the judges were elected "in breach of the Constitution".

The fourth, they added, was not impartial because he was among a group of 104 Polish MPs who tried to enact the same legislative changes in 2017.

The Polish government has until September 13 to respond.

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