Hundreds of people took to the streets in cities across Poland on Thursday night, protesting against the tightening of the country’s abortion laws, which were already among the strictest in Europe. Police met the protesters with pepper spray in some places, and at least 15 demonstrators were arrested.

Clashes between protesters and the police turned violent in the capital city of Warsaw after a ruling by the Constitutional Court left virtually all abortions banned in the conservative country.

The court ruled that ending the life of a fetus with congenital defects was unconstitutional, meaning abortions are now only legal in Poland in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health. Those cases make up only about 2% of the pregnancy terminations carried out legally in the country in recent years. 

According to The Associated Press, Health Ministry figures show that most of the 1,110 legal abortions performed last year were due to fetal genetic defects including Down syndrome, or to physical defects.

The ruling by the country’s top court quickly drew protesters out onto the streets in various cities.

In Warsaw, hundreds marched from the Constitutional Court to the private home of Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Some protesters carried signs with the word “torture” on them.

Police officers reportedly used pepper spray and made the arrests when some protesters threw stones and tried to push through a security cordon around Kaczynski’s house.  

Many critics have accused the government of taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to push legislative changes while scrutiny is minimized by lockdown measures.

The conservative Law and Justice Party, a strong ally of the Catholic Church, has been pushing for tighter abortion laws for many years, often prompting mass protests by women’s rights activists and other groups. Protesters were planning to gather again Friday evening to decry the court’s ruling.

Women’s rights activists told CBS News that the consequences of the new law would be significant, and that in addition to banning virtually all abortions, it will also impose prison sentences for women who decide to have the procedure illegally, and could even lead to criminal investigations into miscarriages.

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