Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Abortion verdict splits Poland's ruling coalition

A verdict by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of a Polish woman who nearly went blind after being denied an abortion exposed a deepening split in Poland's conservative government on Wednesday.

The Strasbourg-based court ordered Poland on Tuesday to pay the woman 39,000 euros ($52,000), enraging an ultra-nationalist party in Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's three-party coalition. It demanded the government challenge the ruling.

"Accepting the (court's) decision would be an absolute scandal," party leader Roman Giertych, who is also education minister, told a news conference. "It would mean that abortion on demand is possible in Poland."

Giertych's League of Polish Families, which opposed Poland's European Union membership, is pushing for a total ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic country.

Health Minister Zbigniew Religa, however, said he agreed with the verdict and did not expect Poland to appeal against it. He also spoke out against changing the current abortion law.

"I agree with Strasbourg in this case," he told private radio TOK FM. "We will probably not appeal."

The rift over abortion is the latest in a series of disputes that have shaken Kaczynski's coalition since it took power in 2006. Giertych said he would demand that Poland appeals against the Strasbourg ruling at a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

Poland has some of the toughest abortion laws in Europe. It allows a pregnancy to be interrupted only when it threatens the life or health of the mother, when the baby is likely to be permanently handicapped or when it originates from rape.

The League wants even those exceptions closed and is pushing to change the constitution to this effect.

Kaczynski's Law and Justice party has agreed to change the constitution to bolster the protection of unborn children but without making existing abortion rules tougher.

Analysts say Kaczynski may eventually choose to dissolve the coalition rather than continue to put up with constant infighting.

But he told Reuters on Wednesday that he did not think the abortion dispute would lead to a serious crisis.

"I cannot say what Giertych will do, but this (dispute) has no political significance for me," he said in brief comments after a meeting with an opposition leader. "I still have patience and I think we can work it out."

The case of Alicja Tysiac, who cannot see objects more than 1.5 metres (five feet) away, led to fresh debate of the abortion law, which is considered draconian by feminist groups.

Strasbourg criticised Polish law for having no procedure for resolving cases where doctors disagree over whether an abortion is justified.