Contraception in Poland: Government Pushes Ahead with Law Restricting Access to Morning After Pill

Morning After Pill
A pharmacist holds a pack of Levonelle, a brand name for Levonorgestrel, commonly known as Plan B in the U.S. or morning after pill. The Polish government wants women to get a doctor's prescription before accessing the pill. Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Polish social media erupted in outrage against the government after Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party pushed through the lower house of parliament late Thursday legislation limiting access to the emergency contraceptive pill.

The hashtag #czarnyprotest (black protest) that called thousands of women to protest in October, forcing a government U-turn on a law prohibiting abortion under all circumstances,  has been trending again on Polish Twitter since Friday. That’s when Polish people awoke to the news of the vote that concluded late on Thursday evening, just in time for the country’s Mother’s Day on May 26.

Thousands of women had staged a black protest against the bill on May 9, as Politico reported, arguing the new law would make the treatment effectively useless. The so-called morning after pill is an emergency contraceptive that can be taken after unprotected sex and can stop an egg from being fertilized or implanting in the womb. (It does not cause an abortion.)

Rejecting the advice of the European Medicines Agency, Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł defended the law in puzzling statements—insisting the morning after pill can be dangerous for women’s health and that using the emergency contraception is comparable to abortion because it does not give pregnancy a chance to develop,. According to local media reports in February, he believed it  was necessary for a woman to speak to her GP before being prescribed the morning after pill.

Timing is crucial for  the pill to work. Levonelle has to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse, and ellaOne within 120 hours, but for both, the sooner the pill is taken from the moment of intercourse, the higher the chances of success in avoiding pregnancy. The pill is available as an over-the-counter medication in most European countries, usually after a consultation with the pharmacist. In Poland, it is currently available without prescription to women above 15 years of age.

The draft law has been hotly debated in recent months. In April, a session in the Parliament health committee had to be cut short after the discussion on the bill became too heated, with minister Radziwiłł defending the law because it would “enable women to get a doctor's opinion, get advice, about whether these substances negatively affect health” and opposition MPs arguing that restricting access to the pill would cause an increase in unwanted pregnancies and, consequently, abortions.

Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The socially conservative ruling party has sought to strengthen ties with the powerful Polish Catholic Church, which opposes the morning after pill, and weaken those with the European Union.

The draft law will now have to be approved in the Senate, where the ruling party holds 64 out of 100 seats, before Polish President Andrzej Duda signs it into law. Unexpected U-turns aside, the whole process is supposed to be over by August.

Women on Waves, a Dutch non-profit organization aiming to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions throughout the world, has announced it will use European regulations to the advantage of Polish women, providing free electronic prescriptions from European doctors to Polish women effective immediately.