WARSAW Thousands of women in black went on strike across Poland on Monday, closing down restaurants, government offices and university classes, and blocking access to the ruling party headquarters in Warsaw to protest against plans for a total ban on abortion.
Legislation proposed by an independent group would forbid any termination, tightening Poland's already restrictive rules that allow abortion only in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health, or when the baby is likely to be permanently handicapped.
It is unclear whether the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government will back the draft law, introduced by the group Ordo Iuris. But the possibility of new restrictions has stirred an intense debate in the staunchly Catholic Poland.
"I didn't go to work today," said Gabriela, a 41-year-old market researcher from Warsaw.
"They are violating our civic rights, and I wanted to support all the women who may be hurt, who may be denied medical help and forced to have a disabled child ... And I am doing it for my daughter."
Critics say the proposed rules would discourage doctors from conducting prenatal testing, particularly if procedures carry the risk of miscarriage, or put the life of women with an ectopic pregnancy at risk.
The draft rules allow for termination if a woman's life is in direct danger.
Women and doctors could face prison if convicted of causing what the proposed rules call "death of a conceived child".
Dressed in black, women chanted "We want doctors, not missionaries!" and "Jaroslaw, get out!" in front of the central Warsaw offices of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Some carried posters saying: "A government is not like a pregnancy - it can be terminated".
For PiS, which swept into power a year ago on a promise of more wealth equality and conservative values in public life, the proposed rules pose a dilemma.
It could antagonise the powerful Catholic church if it fails to back the legislation - or fan an even wider public outcry if it does.
Poland remains one of Europe's most Catholic nations, with about 90 percent of citizens declaring allegiance to the church. But the clergy's sway over the heart and soul of churchgoers, although still strong in some places, has been waning.
PiS officials have been quoted in local media saying the party may introduce its own proposal in parliament that would allow abortion in the case of rape and incest and a threat to the mother's health but disallow terminations of handicapped foetuses.
"The right to life, or as some insist, the right to an abortion, is an important moral challenge for our civilisation, our western civilisation," Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told RMF FM radio.
"Let them have fun," he said of the protesting women. "They should go ahead if they think there are no bigger problems in Poland."
Official statistics show several hundred legal abortions are conducted in Poland each year. But activists say many women are denied access to the procedure when doctors invoke a legal right to decline to perform it on moral or religious grounds.
Tens of thousands are done illegally, activists say, with many women crossing the border to Germany or Slovakia to obtain the procedure.
(Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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