European court orders Poland to pay damages to woman denied abortion for Down syndrome baby

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of eugenic abortions on December 14, stating that Poland’s 2020 law protecting pre-born children with Down syndrome violated a woman’s right to privacy after she left the country to abort her child following a Down syndrome diagnosis. The ECHR ruled that the law did not constitute “inhuman or degrading treatment” as abortion activists hoped, but did rule that the woman’s right to “privacy and family life” had been violated under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR had previously declined the opportunity to challenge Poland’s abortion laws.  

The plaintiff, identified only as “ML,” had become pregnant in 2020 and her child was diagnosed with Down syndrome at 14 weeks. She booked an abortion at a hospital in Warsaw on January 28, 2021, but a constitutional ruling banning eugenic abortions took effect on January 27. Her appointment was cancelled, and ML instead travelled to the Netherlands, where her baby was aborted on January 29. In most Western countries, over 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are killed in the womb. Poland is one of the only countries that specifically protects children with Down syndrome. 

According to ML’s lawyers, this was an injustice – not for the child, but for ML. “In her rapidly deteriorating mental state, ML had to organise a trip abroad within a few days, leaving her family and loved ones in Poland,” her lawyers stated. “For an abortion, which only a few days earlier would have been performed for free in a nearby hospital, she had to travel to the Netherlands.” Federa, a Polish feminist organization, also released a statement: “We fought for this decision for every woman living in Poland. This verdict is a milestone and another argument that Polish law, which causes so much suffering for women in Poland, must change.” 

Poland was ordered to pay €16,004 ($17,549) in “damages” to ML.  

In their decision, the ECHR indicated that due to a recent reform of the judiciary, the “lawfulness” of the ruling banning eugenic abortions was suspect and that ML’s failure to procure an abortion was not “in accordance with the law.” Federa – and European abortion activists – are hopeful that incoming prime minister Donald Tusk, whose coalition government ends the nine-year government of the Law and Justice Party, will change the situation. “We expect the new Polish government to liberalise abortion law,” Federa stated. “A return to the legal situation before the ruling of the Polish constitutional court is not enough – what is needed is access to legal abortion regardless of the reason.” 


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