The touchstone issue of abortion has reared its head once again at the centre of Polish politics.

There were opposing demonstrations outside Poland’s parliament on Friday as it debated a motion to ban abortion outright. If passed, Poland would join just two other European states that ban the procedure – Malta and the Vatican City.

In this staunchly Catholic nation, the issue inflames huge passions on both sides.

What is the current situation?

Abortion is already mostly banned. The only exceptions are a severe and irreversible damage to the foetus, a serious threat to the mother’s health, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

As a result, even by conservative estimates there are far more illegal abortions than legal ones in Poland – between 10,000 and 150,000, compared to about 1,000 or 2,000 legal terminations.

Access to contraception has also been tightened. The only over-the-counter contraception now available is the condom.

Who are the anti-abortion activists and what do they want?

The main group is called Stop Abortion. They demand a total ban with no exceptions even if the life or well-being of the mother is endangered. Their petition calling for a ban attracted 450,000 signatures, triggering Friday’s debate in parliament, where their motion was sent to a committee for further consideration.

Stop Abortion argues that human life starts at conception and should be protected from that moment. The government does not officially back its view, but figures such as Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and the deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki have indicated it has their personal support.

Under the proposed new legislation, abortion would be punishable with an five-year prison term. Doctors already risk punishment if they are found to have carried out an illegal termination, but under the new legislation all doctors performing abortions would be criminalised.

Conservative Catholic weekly Gosc Niedzielny quoted Joanna Banasiuk, a university lawyer and activist, telling parliament that abortion is the “butchering of innocent children, hell for women and moral bankruptcy for men”.

What is the Catholic Church’s role in all this?

The influence of the church is indirect but significant. No parliamentary party has the word “Catholic” or “Christian” in its name, but 87% of the nation declare to be Roman Catholic. If you want to find the roots of the Polish conscience you need to look in the Vatican, say some. And although the ruling Law and Justice part (PIS) does not follow Church teachings blindly, a significant section of its supporters are religious.

A woman holds coat-hangers as a symbol of illegal abortion during an anti-government, pro-abortion demonstration in front of parliament in Warsaw on 9 April 2016Pro-choice activists use coat-hangers to symbolise the dangers of driving abortion underground

Others argue that the Church’s influence on the nation is waning. Attendance at Sunday mass has dropped below 40%. More Poles are willing, these days, to challenge the moral leadership of the Church.

Who are the pro-choice activists and what do they want?

The main group, Save the Women, argue that the current law is already extremely restrictive. They are supported by Poland’s main opposition party, Nowoczesna (Modern), which argues that current regulations are “medieval”, drive abortion underground and deny pregnant women choice – except for more affluent women, who are able to afford to go abroad for terminations.

Coat-hangers representing back-street abortions were a regular feature of protests earlier in the year; recent web-based protests have seen women posting pictures of themselves wearing black mourning clothes, symbolising the death of choice and their own futures.

Save the Women’s Barbara Nowacka said that to reduce the number of illegal abortions the state needs to introduce “sex education, state-funded contraception… and [better] access to doctors as well as the right to abortion”.

The pro-choice movement also garnered enough signatures (about 250,000) to see their proposals debated by parliament – but it immediately struck the motion out.

Left-wing TOK-FM radio claims the abortion issue is cynically used for political profit.

What about public opinion?

Most polls suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of people would prefer to leave the things as they are.

So what happens next?

Although there are vocal supporters of the total abortion ban in the PIS party, the government itself is facing a dilemma over the bill. It doesn’t want to antagonise its Catholic supporters by opposing Stop Abortion’s motion. But it could trigger a public outcry if it goes ahead with it.

One prediction is that the government is likely to park the issue for as long as possible with the parliamentary committee which is currently considering it.

But some are taking matters into their own hands – with or without legislative backing. In the south-eastern region of Podkarpackie – where PIS and the Church enjoy unusually high support – hospitals and doctors have signed a “declaration of conscience” and are refusing to carry out any abortions, in effect removing legal abortion as an option in the region.

What’s the picture on abortion elsewhere in Europe?

European countries are among the world’s most pro-choice when it comes to abortion.

There are exceptions: Malta and Vatican City are among six countries worldwide where abortion is banned outright under law. There are severe restrictions in Ireland, Northern Ireland (where the law differs from the rest of the UK), San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra.

Abortion study: 25% of pregnancies terminated, estimates suggest