President vetoes prescription-free access to morning-after pill in Poland

President Andrzej Duda has vetoed a bill to restore over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill, meaning Poland will remain one of just two EU countries in which a prescription from a doctor is required to obtain emergency contraception.

His decision has been criticised by figures from the governing coalition, which pushed the legislation through parliament. The president is aligned with the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS), now in opposition but which introduced the current restrictions on access to the morning-after pill in 2017 when it was in power.

Parliament has approved the restoration of over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill

That would reverse the previous government’s move in 2017 to make Poland one of only two EU countries where a prescription is required for emergency contraception

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 23, 2024

In a statement, Duda’s office outlined that his motivation in rejecting the legislation was to “protect the health of children”. He is opposed to the fact that the law would have allowed anyone aged 15 and above (Poland’s age of sexual consent) to buy the morning-after pill without the involvement of a doctor.

“The president, listening in particular to the voice of parents, could not accept legal solutions enabling children under 18 years of age to have access to medicinal products for use in contraception without medical supervision and bypassing the role and responsibility of parents,” wrote the presidential chancellery.

The statement noted that Duda had listened to a range of views, including from left-wing MPs who visited him earlier this week, but “no convincing arguments were made in favour of the over-the-counter availability of contraceptives for women under the age of 18”.

It added that the president remains “open to [implementing] the solutions provided for in the bill in relation to adult women (over 18 years of age)”.

Prezydent RP @AndrzejDuda, na podstawie art. 122 ust. 5 Konstytucji RP, zdecydował o skierowaniu nowelizacji Prawa farmaceutycznego do Sejmu RP z wnioskiem o ponowne rozpatrzenie ustawy (tzw. weto).

Podstawowym uzasadnieniem decyzji Prezydenta RP jest wola poszanowania…

— Kancelaria Prezydenta (@prezydentpl) March 29, 2024

Duda’s decision had been widely expected. Both he and his senior aides have repeatedly expressed opposition to allowing minors prescription-free access to the morning-after pill.

In February, after parliament had approved the bill in question, Duda declared the morning-after pill to be a “hormonal bomb” and suggested it would be dangerous to allow under-18s free access to it.

Two weeks ago, the president warned that the legislation was “dangerous for children”. He argued that a “girl could buy the pill and, just in case, take five at one time”.

However, commentators and experts pointed out that morning-after pills are sold in packs containing only one tablet and that, given their price, it was highly unlikely that a child would buy more than one.

Duda argues that the danger is a „girl could buy the pill and, just in case, take five at one time”.

Morning-after pills are sold in packs containing only one tablet with a price ranging from 50-120 zloty

— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) March 13, 2024

Duda’s confirmation today that he was vetoing the law was met with criticism from figures in the ruling coalition, which is made up of parties ranging from left to centre-right and replaced PiS in power in December.

“Superstition and conservative ideology have won over science and women’s rights,” wrote deputy culture minister Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus. “Fortunately, these are the last months of Andrzej Duda’s presidency,” she added. Duda’s second and final term in office ends next year.

“The pill protects against unwanted pregnancy. Young girls should have access to it just like adult women; young women can get pregnant. You can have sexual intercourse in Poland from the age of 15,” said Magdalena Biejat, the deputy speaker of the Senate, quoted by the Rzeczpospolita daily.

A presidential veto can be overturned by a three-fifths majority of MPs in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. However, the ruling coalition would not be able to muster such support given that the only other groups in parliament are PiS and the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja).

Zabobon i konserwatywna ideologia wygrały z nauką i prawami kobiet. Na chwilę. Jako Lewica obiecałyśmy„tabletkę dzień po” Polkom. I tak to wprowadzimy.
Na szczęście to ostatnie miesiące prezydentury Andrzeja Dudy.

— J. Scheuring-Wielgus (@JoankaSW) March 29, 2024

An MP from the ruling coalition, Kinga Gajewska, announced that they would now be “implementing plan B”. That referred to a pledge made by the health minister, Izabela Leszczyna, earlier this week that, if Duda issued a veto, the government has plans in place to ensure access to emergency contraception.

“I really don’t understand why the president won’t listen to experts, specialists, doctors, everyone who says that this pill is safe,” Leszczyna told broadcaster RMF. “Of course, we have to have a plan B…This tablet will be available on the basis of a pharmaceutical prescription.”

Pharmaceutical prescriptions are a system under Polish law that allows pharmacists to issue a prescription “in the event of a threat to a patient’s health”. There has been debate in the past over whether this can cover emergency contraception.

Leszczyna told RMF that the government has “prepared a regulation” on this issue and that she has been “talking to pharmacists and the pharmaceutical chamber” about implementing it.

Musimy mieć plan B. Mamy przygotowane rozporządzenie, rozmawiam z farmaceutami, z Izbą Aptekarską. Tabletka dzień po będzie dostępna na podstawie recepty farmaceutycznej – mówiła w Popołudniowej #RozmowaRMF ministra @MZ_GOV_PL.
Taką receptę będzie mógł wypisać jedynie…

— RozmowaRMF (@Rozmowa_RMF) March 27, 2024

When the PiS government ended over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill in 2017, it made Poland the only EU country other than Hungary to require a prescription for emergency contraception.

The then health minister, Konstanty Radziwiłł, argued that the morning-after pill can have side effects and should only be administered under medical supervision. He also said that he himself, being a medical doctor, would refuse to prescribe such pills, even to a rape victim, as it would violate his beliefs.

For the past five years, Poland has been ranked as the worst country in Europe for contraception policies by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Poland has been ranked as the worst country in Europe for contraception

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 10, 2022

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Main image credit: Grzegorz Jakubowski/KPRP

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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