Women Enabled International is deeply concerned about the decision by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruling unconstitutional Poland’s law permitting abortion on grounds of “a severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’s life.” This decision effectively bans access to safe and legal abortion for women—including women with disabilities—in Poland, violating the fundamental human rights of Poland’s women.
The ability to make decisions about one’s own body and life is a fundamental human right, and one which both women and persons with disabilities are frequently denied. We have heard from women with disabilities around the world, including in Poland, that meaningful reproductive autonomy is a priority for them, both as women and persons with disabilities, and that access to abortion is an important part of that reproductive autonomy. They have also reported that restrictions on their sexual and reproductive autonomy—including the decision by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal—further entrench the discriminatory notion that they cannot make decisions for themselves in all areas of their lives. According to Article 6, a feminist disability rights collective based in Poland, “This ruling violates human rights and any respect for the decisions and needs of women, including women with disabilities. Instead, it imposes a limited vision of life and femininity that is contingent on subordination and coercion of women and girls with disabilities.”
Furthermore, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruling will have a disproportionate impact on the health and well-being of women with disabilities. Legal restrictions on access to abortion do not reduce the need for abortion as an essential reproductive health service; instead they carry potentially devastating consequences for women’s lives, leading to a greater number of unsafe and clandestine abortions (with attendant consequences to life and health) or compelling women to travel to other jurisdictions to obtain a needed abortion. Due to societal discrimination, women with disabilities are more likely to have lower levels of education and less access to employment resulting in lower incomes, so frequently they cannot afford to travel abroad for abortion. Furthermore, women with mobility-related disabilities face additional barriers to travel, as the means of travel are often inaccessible. These inequalities are further exacerbated in the context of the current global pandemic.
Eliminating access to safe and legal abortion on the ground of fetal impairment is a step in the wrong direction, restricting reproductive autonomy in clear violation of Poland’s obligations under international human rights law. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) explicitly protects the right of persons with disabilities to sexual and reproductive health. The CRPD Committee has found that access to abortion is an important part of this right, including in its 2018 concluding observations to Poland, which provided that Poland should “ensure that the autonomy and decisions of women with disabilities are respected [and] that access to safe abortion is provided.”
Women with disabilities in Poland do not want to see greater restrictions on their reproductive autonomy, especially under the guise of protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. As Article 6 expressed: “It is vital that women with disabilities, instead of being deprived of subjectivity in deciding on their own sexuality, have access to accessible gynecological care, reliable sex education, effective methods of pregnancy planning. As Article 6 collective, we demand that women with disabilities have access to abortion options when they consider this to be the best solution. They should also have access to full information about their health and that of the fetus, and comprehensive non-ableist prenatal diagnostics, to make free decisions about their lives.”
There are a number of steps that Poland could take to better protect the rights of persons with disabilities without also violating the rights of women (including women with disabilities). These include ensuring that persons with disabilities can access quality education and meaningful employment; abolishing laws that restrict the legal capacity of persons with disabilities and instead support persons with disabilities to lead autonomous and independent lives; and fostering a climate where people with disabilities can participate as equal members of society and where people with disabilities and their families have access to the range of supports and services that they may need.