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In Poland, Protests As Near-Total Ban On Abortions Goes Into Effect

Protesters gathered in the streets of Warsaw and other cities on Wednesday night after Poland's government announced a near-total ban on abortion had suddenly gone into effect.

The country's Constitutional Court had ruled in October to ban terminations of pregnancies with fetal defects – nearly the only abortions that occur in Poland, which already had strict limits on the procedure.

Abortion will now only be permitted in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's health or life is in danger.

The implementation of the ruling was delayed after weeks of huge protests in the fall. Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, a nationalist party aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, has moved to implement conservative policies and grant lawmakers more power to appoint judges.

"This idiotic ruling will not prevent abortions," Cezary Jasinski, a 23-year-old student, toldReuters in central Warsaw.

"But for every woman who will experience pain because of this ruling, or will be forced to give birth to a child with Down syndrome, they (court judges) will be to blame."

There were 1,100 abortions performed last year in Poland; of those, 1,074 were due to fetal abnormalities, The New York Times reports.

Marek Suski, a politician in the Law and Justice Party, said the party would consider introducing new rules that could allow exclusions for the most extreme fetal deformities, Reuters reports — though consensus between the party and its conservative allies might make that difficult.

"In cases when the fetus doesn't have a skull or has no chance to live outside the womb, there should be a choice. We will work on this," Suski told Polish public radio, according to Reuters.

Clement Beaune, France's European Affairs minister, wrote on Twitter: "A sad day that reminds us that rights can recede if they are not defended. The fight goes on."

The months-long delay between the ruling and its implementation appears to be a result of the large protests that ensued. Last October, a planned "women's strike" drew more than 400,000 protesters across more than 400 Polish cities and towns.

In the interim, many hospitals had already stopped performing abortions due to fetal defects, fearing legal trouble, The Associated Press reports. Doctors in Poland can be jailed for performing illegal abortions.

The move comes as President Biden signs an executive action on Thursday rescinding what's known as the "global gag rule," which barred international nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals from receiving U.S. funding.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.