Polish govt moves to bypass president veto over emergency contraception

A pro-abortion rally in front of the Polish parliament (Wojtek RADWANSKI)
A pro-abortion rally in front of the Polish parliament (Wojtek RADWANSKI)

Poland's pro-EU coalition government on Friday sought to bypass a veto by conservative President Andrzej Duda in a tug-of-war over prescription-free emergency contraception, which the previous nationalist government reversed.

Catholic-majority Poland saw a rollback of women's reproductive rights during the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party's eight-year rule, with access tightened to emergency contraception, made prescription-only in 2017.

The government led by former EU chief Donald Tusk, in power since December, had pledged to ease those curbs and passed a bill to provide over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill for girls and women aged 15 and over.

But Duda vetoed the legislation, a statement from the presidency said on Friday, citing his "will to respect constitutional rights and the standard of health protection for children".

Duda, a staunch ally of the PiS and a devout Catholic, "could not accept" the bill as it enabled access to the contraceptive pill "without medical supervision and bypassing the role and responsibility of parents", it said.

It also suggested Duda was open to easing restrictions, but only for women aged 18 and over.

The presidential veto prompted backlash from the ruling camp, with Tusk regretting that Duda failed to seize "the opportunity to put himself on the side of women".

Left senator Magdalena Biejat slammed what she called a "harmful" decision.

"Young girls should have access to (emergency contraception) just like adult women, because young girls can also get pregnant," she told reporters.

"It's a pity that the president is yet again against Polish women," deputy education minister Katarzyna Lubnauer said on social media, adding that the government "knows how to deal with this obstacle."

- 'Unwanted pregnancies' -

Anticipating the presidential veto, the government had already announced it would bypass this by allowing pharmacists to give prescriptions for the pill.

"We're launching Plan B," Tusk wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, after Duda's veto.

"If we don't want women and young girls to get unwanted pregnancies, let's do everything to make the pill as accessible as possible," Health Minister Izabela Leszczyna had told RMF FM radio.

The World Health Organization says on its website that emergency contraception should be "routinely included" within all national family planning programmes.

The debate on the morning-after pill comes amid attempts to liberalise Poland's abortion laws, one of Europe's strictest.

Abortion is currently legal in Poland only if pregnancy results from sexual assault or incest, or threatens the life or health of the mother.

Four bills to liberalise the near-total ban have been submitted to the parliament, but work on them is yet to start, as the drafts waited for a green light from the lower house speaker to start debate.

Lower house speaker Szymon Holownia, who presents himself as a progressive Catholic, said he did not want to debate the bills while campaigning was on for local elections due in April.