Poland's government put into effect on Wednesday a constitutional court decision banning terminations of pregnancies with foetal defects, as conservative policies increasingly take root in one of Europe's most devout Catholic countries.
The Oct. 22 ruling had led to weeks of massive protests, forcing the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government to delay its implementation.
Small protests gathered late on Wednesday following an announcement PiS would take the official step to enforce the decision imminently, and abortion rights activists announced more would take place on Thursday.
Abortion has emerged as one of the most divisive issues since PiS took power in 2015, promising poorer, older and less educated Poles a return to a traditional society mixed with generous welfare policies.
The court's verdict was published in the official gazette late on Wednesday.
"This idiotic ruling will not prevent abortions," said Cezary Jasiński, a 23-year-old student, standing in front of the Constitutional Tribunal building in central Warsaw.
"But for every woman who will experience pain because of this ruling, or will be forced to give birth to a child with Down's Syndrome, they (court judges) will be to blame."
Last year's protests quickly morphed into an eruption of anger against the government, particularly among young people, suggesting PiS may face a fresh challenge from new voters in coming years.
On Wednesday, officials said the government would now focus on assisting parents of disabled children, although PiS as well as its centrist predecessors have been accused by critics of not doing enough in that regard.
"The state can no longer take a life away only because someone is sick, disabled, in poor health," PiS lawmaker Bartlomiej Wroblewski said.
The party denies opposition criticism that it had influenced the court, called the Constitutional Tribunal. It is one of the judicial bodies PiS overhauled during reforms that the European Union said has politicised the courts.
"No law-abiding government should respect this ruling," Borys Budka, leader of Poland's largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform, told reporters.
Access to abortion has declined even without the legislative curbs as more doctors refuse to perform them on religious grounds and many women seek abortions abroad.
Under the new rules, terminations will be permitted only in cases of rape and incest, and when the mother's life or health is endangered. Doctors performing illegal abortions in Poland face jail.
In a justification published on Wednesday, the tribunal left open the possibility of the parliament regulating some circumstances covered by the law.
Marek Suski, a PiS lawmaker, said the party would consider introducing new rules that could allow the most extreme foetal deformities to be excluded. But political commentators say consensus between PiS and its arch-conservative governing allies would be difficult to achieve.
"In cases when the foetus doesn't have a skull or has no chance to live outside the womb, there should be a choice. We will work on this," Suski told public radio.
Opinion surveys have shown some decline in PiS popularity in recent months, but an opinion poll by the government-affiliated CBOS pollster showed it edging back up to 35% this month, from 30% in October. PiS and its two small parliamentary allies won re-election in 2019 with a 44% share of the vote.