Poland’s new abortion law triggers broader discontent as women lead protests
“Poland is an example for Europe and the world”, chanted the hundreds of pro-life activists gathered outside the Constitutional Court in Warsaw last Thursday. Their outburst of enthusiasm came after the court had ruled to almost completely ban abortions.
But Tuesday, as yesterday, streets in large cities and small towns across Poland are blocked by not hundreds, but tens of thousands, mostly women, who are outraged by that restrictive court ruling.
Today is the sixth day women came out with placards reading “My body’s not an incubator”, “This is war,” and Poles are beginning to take this protest further, beyond the anti-abortion law — to vent their anger at their rulers. Marta Lempart, one of the demos’ leaders says, “Now it’s not about abortion alone, it’s about freedom in general and abortion has become a symbol of it.”
Many in Poland are referring to the swelling protests as the Women’s Revolution. Poland has not seen such a manifestation of nationwide solidarity in years. During Monday’s protest, taxi drivers stopped their cabs and blocked road junctions, the so-called ‘ultras’ — soccer fans who take pride in being macho stadium hooligans — marched with the women. The town of Krakow was a scene of rare defiance — riot police, there to contain the demo, changed sides and took off their helmets, dropped their shields and marched alongside the protesting women.
It is common knowledge in Poland that it’s not only the conservative, right-wing government that is behind the ban, but particularly bishops of the influential Catholic Church. On Sunday demonstrators took their anger to the churches across the country and disrupted services.
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Laws imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 ban public gatherings of more than 10 people and provide authorities with a justifiable excuse to send in police to break up the swelling demos.
Several dozen people have been detained and fined, but at least for now, police actions have been restrained. Helmeted, shield-wielding riot police control the demos, but seem to be there mostly to intimidate.
Up until last Thursday, Poland’s abortion law was a compromise that worked. Pro-abortionists saw it as too restrictive, pro-lifers considered it to be too liberal, but both accepted it ever since the law was passed in 1993.
Abortion was allowed only if the pregnancy was a result of a criminal act, when pregnancy posed a serious threat to a pregnant woman’s health or life, or when there was high probability of a serious and irreversible fetal malformation or an incurable lethal disease.
Now the Polish Constitutional Court decided that terminating a pregnancy in case of serious fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional and violated an article that guarantees the right to life.
The Polish government seems shocked by the scale of the protests and is visibly at a loss of how to deal with the unrest. Poland’s rulers realize that these large-scale demos are not a one-off, localized protest — they encompass the entire country and are growing. The ban on abortion has become a unifying factor bringing together people who have otherwise been on opposite extremes of the political spectrum.
What is most worrying to the ruling authoritarian Law and Justice party is that the new abortion law has become only one of the reasons for protesters to take to the streets.
Every day more people are joining in, furious how the government is drifting away from European Union values, how it mishandled preparations for the second wave of COVID-19, angry at how the ruling party is unashamedly taking over the judiciary and at how it imposes its conservative values on schools. The ripple effect stretched out far beyond abortion — it even encouraged dissatisfied farmers to block streets with their tractors.
With protests getting out of control, the Polish government has a dilemma of whether to backtrack and lose support of its hard-line, religious, electorate or to suppress the ongoing protests forcefully.
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For now, it is buying time, evading responsibility by saying that the abortion ban was a decision of the Constitutional Court, an institution independent of the government. That, however, is a risky excuse given that the court was taken over by the ruling party in an undemocratic way.
The Catholic Church, which has enormous influence on Poland’s current rulers, issued a statement saying the Catholic Church is not Poland’s lawmaker, so it had no influence on the Constitutional Court’s ruling. The court itself claims to have been true to the letter of the constitution, which protects all life as sacred, so it did what it had to.
The abortion-spurred unrest of the last six days may result in a shakeup in Poland. The Catholic Church is losing support with numbers of faithful on the decline. Polls indicate that the ruling Law and Justice populists are steadily losing popularity. Their anti-European Union stance, incompetence and mishandling of the pandemic is beginning to be noticed even by their most faithful voters.
Magda Bryla, one of the organizers of protests in Warsaw, told ABC News that the women are planning to hold a strike this Wednesday. “We have asked all women to consider not going to work tomorrow.” Bryla went on to say, “If anyone can stop this steamroller, this destructive administration, it’s us, women. We feel nationwide support and we would disappoint everyone if we backed off. Our opponents call us barbaric savages worshiping the civilization of death — and that alone is good enough reason to express our anger. All we are asking for is basic dignity and for human rights to be observed. Tightening the abortion law even further is unacceptable. Women will be afraid to have children, there will be real tragedies.”
In a nationwide address today, Poland’s Prime Minster Mateusz Morawiecki defended the Court’s ruling and appealed to the protesters for “calm and reason”. But the women, and men who support them, are unlikely to hear his call.