Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party pushed a controversial bill through the lower house of parliament, or Sejm, late Thursday that includes a provision to limit access to emergency contraception, such as the EllaOne pill.
The measure has been met with outrage from women’s rights organizations and the opposition.
The bill will now move on to the upper house, the Senate, after which PiS-friendly President Andrzej Duda is expected to give it a final sign-off. The procedural calendar suggests the draft law would take effect in August.
The conservative PiS government says that making the morning after pill available only by prescription will benefit women because doctors will have an opportunity to check on women’s health before prescribing the pill.
Women’s organizations say emergency contraception is safe — it is available over the counter in a majority of European Union member countries — and the Polish bill seeks to deny women options in cases of unwanted pregnancy.
EllaOne is sold over the counter because of a European Medicines Agency (EMA) decision from 2014 that recommended a change in the classification of the drug from prescription to non-prescription. The EMA found that the drug could be used safely and effectively without a doctor’s sign-off.
The EMA says the drug can prevent unintended pregnancy if taken within five days of intercourse that was unprotected or in which another type of contraception failed.
Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł and other PiS politicians have said that pills like EllaOne are used by women to induce early abortion. Poland already has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion regulations.
Earlier this week, Radziwiłł said that because the drug is on the list of strong active substances, it must be regulated like other hormonal contraceptives in Poland.
After the EMA recommendation that EllaOne be available over the counter, EllaOne sales grew from about 10,000 per year to 240,000 two years later in Poland, he noted.
EllaOne is most efficient within the first 24 hours after intercourse, however, said Natalia Jakacka, a Warsaw doctor and women’s rights activist.
By limiting access to it, “there will be a greater number of illegal and dangerous abortions, which is dangerous to women’s health and lives and carries social and economical costs,” she said after the vote. “Many doctors will dodge writing EllaOne prescriptions, citing so-called ‘conscience clause,’” or the right to refuse care that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs, Jakacka also said.
And limiting access to emergency contraception will hit those already struggling the most, said MP Bartosz Arłukowicz, the health minister in the previous government led by the Civic Platform party, now in opposition.
“Making emergency contraception available on prescription only means it will not be available at all to Polish women living outside of big cities and those who cannot afford to pay for a private appointment with gynecologist,” Arłukowicz said.