Few will have missed the media coverage of the fight for abortion rights in Poland. The outrage comes as a result of a court ruling that would introduce a near-total ban on abortions, which has sparked nationwide outrage and incited a women’s strike spanning several weeks. Following the protests, the government has delayed implementation of the controversial ruling.
As a predominantly Catholic country, Poland already had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. However, after the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling back in October, the ban on abortions has been extended to cases where the foetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect. Once the ruling comes into effect, abortions will only be permitted in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk.
The protests saw an estimated turn out of over 400,000 people across the nation
In an effort to push back against the new legislation, pro-choice protesters have taken to the streets of Poland. Rallying in 400 different towns and cities, including Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, and Gdańsk, the protests saw an estimated turn out of over 400,000 people across the nation. They attracted a large number of young women, but people from all kinds of backgrounds joined the protests. The sheer size of the gatherings has sparked controversy given the recent tightening of restrictions due to rising coronavirus infections and fatalities in the country that had faired relatively well in the first wave of the pandemic.
Protesters demonstrated through placards saying “Disgrace”, “This is war”, and “We are pissed off”, as well as angry chants of “we are sick of this” and “I think, I feel, I decide”. While the majority of demonstrations remained peaceful, Polish police reported that bands of nationalists dressed in black attacked protesters in Warsaw. Many of those arrested were found to be carrying knives and batons.
At the same time, protesters were seen defacing churches and public buildings. In certain towns, they also caused disruptions to church services, in which protesters staged sit-ins and demonstrations interrupting Sunday Mass. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has condemned the protesters’ “acts of aggression, vandalism [and] attacks” as “absolutely inadmissible.” This was echoed by the founder of the Law and Justice (PiS) party Jarosław Kaczyński, who called for people to defend the churches from demonstrators. This landed him a significant amount of criticism for allegedly inciting violence in far-right groups.
An opinion poll for Gazeta Wyborcza found that the majority (59%) of those asked disagreed with the change. Despite this disagreement, the PM has said that the decision is final and irreversible. On Tuesday 27 October, however, centrist and left-wing MPs showed their support for protesters in parliament by holding placards and shouting pro-choice slogans at the PM.
Reproductive rights have been a controversial and divisive issue in Poland for a long time. In 2016, an opinion poll by CBOS found that the majority of respondents (53%) would allow for abortion in circumstances where the foetus has a severe defect, while 30% had the opposite opinion. Interestingly, the study found that opinions did not differ significantly when only taking into account the responses of women of childbearing age.
Judgments are meant to be published with no delay. It’s a legal trick to withhold publishing
– Anna Wójcik
Political tension has risen significantly since the election of PiS in 2015, which has fostered further division in Poland. PiS has been heavily criticised for straying from democratic norms, in particular by over-representing their supporters in the constitutional tribunal. Now, the controversial ruling has caused anger beyond the usual PiS opponents. Surprised by the size and reach of the protests, the government has delayed the implementation of the new legislation. This was described as a political decision by the researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences Anna Wójcik. She said that “judgments are meant to be published with no delay. It’s a legal trick to withhold publishing”.
In response to the outrage, President Andrezej Duda has suggested a new ruling in which abortions would be legal in cases of life-threatening birth defects. This would not include conditions such as Down’s syndrome. This proposal, however, is likely to be regarded by the right-wing ruling coalition as too relaxed and by the protesters as too stringent.
The All-Polish Women’s Strike has taken to Facebook to push back against his motion, saying that “[the government] won’t get people off the streets with another bill banning abortion” and that they are “only adding oil to the fire.” Duda’s proposal has already been denounced by the Church as well; the head of the Polish Conference of Bishops Stanisław Gądecki described it as “new form of euthanasia”.
These pro-choice protests come only months after a similar level of outrage for LGBTQ+ rights swept across the country. Poland’s Catholic and conservative history is an undeniable common denominator to both crises. While the Church has become significantly less influential among young people, particularly among the female and LGBTQ+ youth of the nation, they still hold a significant amount of power.
It is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 abortions are carried out illegally or abroad
For some time now, the Church has pressured PiS to tighten restrictions on reproductive rights. Despite the party’s support of traditional Catholic views, passing the court ruling proved significantly difficult. In 2016, an estimated 100,000 people protested to block the restriction of abortion rights in Poland.
On the one hand, people in favour of the court ruling have defended the human right to life, saying that this right begins at conception and continues after birth. In direct response to the legislation, the Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski has said that this ruling would protect the unborn from discrimination on the grounds of health defects.
On the other, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights has said on Twitter that “removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban & violates human rights”. She went on to say that the ruling “means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for others”.
If implemented, the ban will likely have a significant impact on Poland, given that 98% of all legal terminations before the ruling came as a result of severe foetal defect. With only 1000 legal abortions undertaken per year, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 abortions are carried out illegally or abroad. With a near-total ban, illegal, unregulated and ultimately unsafe abortions could become even more common, significantly endangering the lives of thousands of women.
Aside from the moral question of abortion, Polish people are concerned for their freedom of speech. Many people have expressed anger and fear at the nationalist party’s actions and have described PiS as leaning toward an authoritarian regime.
The protests have sparked global outrage, garnering a substantial amount of coverage on international news channels and in social media. Several hashtags went viral on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, including #PiekloKobiet (‘Hell of women’), #AborcjaBezGranic (‘Abortion without borders’), and #WyrokNaKobiety (‘Sentence on women’). Protests have even extended to other countries, where people of many nationalities are rallying to support the reproductive rights of Polish women.
The organisers of the strikes said that despite Poland’s deepening political and social divisions, many firms seemed to recognise the importance of the demonstrations and agreed to let female employees take some days off. The fight for abortion rights in Poland speaks to the complexity of reproductive rights, particularly how they intersect with religion, politics and culture.