Poland protesters hold firm on Women’s Day as government pushes through anti-abortion law

In the largest protests the country has seen since the fall of communism in 1989, Poland is not just stirring with revolution; the ground is shaking with it. Since October 22, hundreds of thousands across the Eastern European country have been protesting in approximately 580 cities and towns. Some towns have reported more than 10% of residents taking to the streets. International Women’s Day was marked by equally widespread protests as the law finally took effect in January, three months after it was tabled. The Women’s Strike – a bit of a misnomer because it’s not all women and it’s not exactly a strike – was sparked by the nation’s Constitutional Court in Warsaw further restricting already tight access to abortion by cancelling abortion grants in cases of congenital foetal malformation. 

Abortion was legal in Poland only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the foetus is affected by severe defects. The elimination of the last condition from the list sparked not just anger at the government, but the church, to which the government has pandered in most of its laws regarding women, reproductive rights, and LGBT+ rights. The existing abortion law was formulated by political and Catholic Church leaders. Although a secular state, Poland is characteristically conservative and Roman Catholic but even so, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015, looks like it’s falling and these protests seem to be the beginning of that fall.

Just a few days ago, supporters of the Women’s Strike poured into its Warsaw office, preparing banners and other materials for their “Women’s Day Without Compromises” protest and took to the streets, with many activists being arrested, charged with crimes, or still facing police violence at protests. Previously, the government, in a last-ditch attempt to demonise the protestors, accused them of risking lives by defying pandemic rules against large gatherings. Poland reported a daily record of more than 21 000 new cases of COVID-19 a week after the protests with Health Minister Adam Niedzielski drawing comparisons between the protest and the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality in the US, saying demonstrations in the US caused an “escalation” of the pandemic. Public health experts say there is no conclusive evidence of large-scale spread from the BLM events. As was the case with the protests across the pond, immunologists say that most demonstrators have been wearing face masks, keeping a decent distance apart from each other, and were out in the open – all of which reduces the risk of infection.

Kinga Jelinska, activist and director of Women Help Women, an organisation that provides reproductive health services to women at a grassroots level, says there is so much anger in Poland and it’s evident in the sustained marches. Protesters undertook a spontaneous march from the courthouse to the headquarters of the ruling party, and then to the house of the party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. As word spread on social media, thousands more people joined the march, including Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski of the opposition Civic Platform party calling for dialogue between the protesters and the government. His office estimated the crowd at 100 000. Jelinska, while in the Netherlands at the time, was moved by the protests and says it’s about time. 

“We are exhausted and it’s fitting that the slogan for the protest is ‘Wypierdalać’ – a stronger version of ‘Fuck off’,” says Jelinska. “The language that has surrounded abortion for the longest time in Poland has been stigmatising, derogatory, and critical and now that has to change. We are now pointing that kind of language at the government instead of at each other as women.” The protests, which have been sustained since October 22, have seen the streets lined with posters reading ‘Abort the government’ and ‘To jest wojna’ (This is war), but also far-right activists emerging from side streets, firing flares on the Warsaw protesters as they attacked official buildings and churches, which Kaczyński called to be protected, stoking the right-wing violence against the demonstrators. Senior figures in the Catholic church have spoken out in favour of the ruling, sparking anger among even Catholic women. Kaczynski is fiercely against abortion and has called the protestors “barbarians,” accusing them of trying to destroy Poland. As the movement continues to gather momentum, more people with varied interests are joining including taxi drivers and members of trade unions, who also allege that the government has not provided enough support for them during the pandemic. Jelinska and other activists hope this convergence ultimately results in a general strike against the government.

Kaczynski appears to have calculated that he could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under his control to do it during the pandemic. If that was the case, the plan has backfired for now, though it remains unclear how long the protests will keep their momentum. Marches, protests, and acts of civil disobedience continue and the protest leaders are acting as a help desk to people who want to organise protests, supplying visuals, suggest hashtags and slogans, and helping to raise money. A ban on abortions in almost all circumstances was proposed as a bill in parliament in 2016 and Polish women marched through the streets of many cities and towns wearing black and the movement, now known as the “black protests” were large enough to prompt the parliament to table the bill but nowhere near the scale of this year’s protest action, which, Jelinska says has a feeling of tipping the scales. “The language surrounding abortion used to be delegitimising, almost. Now we are reclaiming it.”

“The reality is that this proposed law is unconstitutional and the government knows that. They’re trying to fool people by quoting legal [jargon] but denying abortion in cases of foetal malformation is a health risk and equates to torture.” Jelinksa says the law is invalid and publishing it would have gone unnoticed if the protests didn’t break out. “But I can say it is practically in effect, doctors are too afraid to do these procedures now and run the risk of losing their practice licences. It’s all bullying tactics by the government, who are trying to cling to as much power as possible.” She says the intersectional marches are not just calling for an end to restrictive laws but also to recognise LGBT+ rights, women of colour in Poland, and the plight of women in society in general as women are still seen and treated as inferior by many. There were marches against the persecution of the LGBT+ community in Poland earlier this year.

“They still think we are the people of back then,” she says. But there has been a considerable change since the fall of the Soviet Union and its rule over Poland. The people participating in the protest are the first generation from a Poland that’s a member of the European Union who has enjoyed free tertiary education, travelled the world freely, and been exposed to globalised thought. These protesters speak many languages ​​and have been exposed to human and civil rights movements and changes elsewhere, including what they mean in the here and now for Poland. Though one of the protesters, Maria Lampert says the pushing through of the law has been polarising between the elder population and the youth, there is rapid secularisation in the country with support growing for a liberalised abortion law.

The break away from religious institutions is growing and the church has seen a significant drop over the past few years; a sign of weakening of the tool that the right-wing uses as a method of control. Data from The Public Opinion Research Centre show a sharp decline in religiosity among young Poles. Only 63% of final-year school pupils describe themselves as believers, down from 81% just a decade ago. A mere 28% say they attend church on Sundays while 35% say they never go to church. There is a consistent decline and a ‘creeping secularisation’, has been noticeable since the beginning of the 21st Century. Statistics Poland data also shows the 25-34 age group is the least religious – the age group that has been at the forefront of the protest. Jelinska says, “It’s clearly a political decision. They [the government] know they’re losing popularity, losing power, and losing control. Young people are tired of their bullshit. They are siding with the church and denying us rights to prove that Poland is still Christian, conservative, and needs them.”

Jelinska says the language around abortion, women’s rights, and reproductive health is changing and it’s scary to them. “Unlike the rest of Europe where the right is rising, the left is rising here.” The USSR scared people away from leftism, but not anymore, she says. “We have realised that the church and men cannot speak for us women and we need to get rid of their patronising approach to how we rule our own bodies.” The Catholic church has long enjoyed its loved and untouchable status in Poland, largely due to its role in the anti-communist movement. Governments have taken great care to maintain this amicable relationship with church leaders and priests hold positions of authority in communities. But this move has broken women’s love for the church in Poland, it seems. From blocking streets in front of churches to actually entering churches and disrupting services, women have rejected what is known as the “conservative compromise”, the 1993 family planning law that effectively minimised reproductive rights for Polish women, criminalised doctors performing surgical abortions and vilified women who seek reproductive health services. This compromise remains in place today. 

The protesters aren’t just calling for the expansion of women’s as well as LGBT+ rights. They’re also demanding a secular state in a direct challenge to the power the church has had over Poland since it transitioned to a capitalist democracy. The church in Poland – as is the case in many other places – has had an impact on beliefs about abortion and these beliefs have inevitably sunk its teeth into Polish law. The people’s understanding of family, LGBT+ rights, and women’s role in society are also informed by the church and its conservative leaders and the influence is extended by its wealth. The church itself received extensive land in compensation for losses under communism and it is now the largest landowner in the country. This money pays for Christian-based education, newspapers, and broadcast on the densest radio network in Europe. It also continues to be funded by the state, estimated at $1.3 billion per year, though these figures are not officially made public. “The extent of the church’s power is unbelievable,” says Jelinksa. “But their power is lowering and this is never about women – it’s about control. This movement is just a catalyst for bigger changes.”

“This is a resistance and a generational movement that began in 2016 and has come to now. We are sharing our stories, experiences, and solidarity.” Jelinska recalls the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland who was denied an abortion on religious grounds. Medical staff at University Hospital Galway denied her request following an incomplete miscarriage stating that granting her request would be illegal under Irish law, ultimately resulting in her death from septic miscarriage. “We cannot afford another Savita – not in Poland or anywhere in the world.” She says the language is changing and debate is pointless. “We can no longer debate people over our humanity and rights. This new language we are pushing is aggressive and we are demanding that abortion be seen as positive and a choice for individuals – not governments.”

While church and government are unwavering in support for each other, opinion polls show a very different sentiment among the people: 65% of all Poles believe abortion should be allowed if the foetus is seriously damaged, 57% of respondents who identify with the Law and Justice party believe it should be allowed, and 76% of all women respondents believe it should be allowed. Women’s Strike wants fully legalised abortion up to 12 weeks, as is the case in most other European countries. According to statistics provided 69% agree that abortion should be legalised while 20% want to maintain the current restrictive law, and only 11% favour further restrictions. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, suggested a new proposal that would allow abortion in cases of life-threatening birth defects but not for conditions such as Down’s syndrome.

The group for which Jeliska works, Women Help Women, has offices in Poland and elsewhere in Europe to help Polish women gain access to abortion pills. This is a medication that stops the progress of a pregnancy, then helps the body expel that pregnancy. It involves two separate medicines; the first is mifepristone, which starts the process of safely terminating the pregnancy and the second is misoprostol, which helps the uterus expel the pregnancy. Jelinska says the advocacy work that is being done aims at getting people proper information about abortion and dispelling the myths the government and the church have circulated for so long. “We are now beginning to realise, as women, that other women who need or want abortions are not doing anything wrong. We are now standing as sisters looking out for and protecting each other in a common goal. The narrative has changed and is no longer apologetic.” 

Lempart reckons they cannot change the new laws without changing the government. “But we do have judicial independence on the local level,” she told Vogue. “We’re talking about the Constitutional Court being hijacked but not the local judiciary. We have a good chance that at some point, someone will win a case having to do with being denied abortion, and then there will be a precedent.” She saus there will likely be a case that goes before the European Court of Human Rights when someone does eventually sue Poland for them being denied an abortion. “Of course,” she says, “this is a matter of time, and women don’t have that time.”

Jelinska, sighing a deep sigh of an exhausted activist, says,“This is an awakening of the Polish people. We are heading toward an evolution of government, of society, and new ways of thinking because people are tired of being treated like shit,” Jelinska says. “We just need to keep sustained pressure on the government like never before. This is a revolution and the government and the church needs to recognise this.”