By Leyre Castro
Last Thursday October 22nd, 2020 was a dark day for Polish women. Poland’s Constitutional Court ruled abortion due to fetal defects as unconstitutional. Until then, it was legal to have an abortion in three cases: in case of rape or incest, if the mother’s health and life is threatened or in case of fetal defects. This last provision, which accounts for 98% of the terminations carried out in the country, has now been ruled unconstitutional.
Poland was already one of the strictest countries in terms of abortion laws in Europe, but the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) has been trying for a long time to make the abortion law even stricter. Back in October 2016, demonstrators all across the country took the streets to protest on the PiS party’s attempt to enact this law. The Parliament rejected the abortion ban on October 6th. After the controversial judicial reforms in the country and the nomination of court judges by PiS, it comes as no surprise that the ban could be passed this time.
As Amnesty International stated, this new law violates women’s rights and will put many females’ health at risk. Esther Major, senior research adviser at Amnesty International reported that prohibitions on abortions do not prevent them, but simply damage women’s health by forcing them to have underground abortions or to travel to foreign countries to access termination. The situation is alarming, especially for marginalized women who will be the ones suffering the consequences from this new ban. In fact, although less than 2,000 legal terminations are carried out in the country each year, it is estimated that up to 200,000 abortions are performed illegally or abroad.
How Polish people reacted
Hours after the new ruling, hundreds of protesters took the streets to denounce it and the demonstrations have been going on since Thursday, October 22nd all across the country. Despite the restrictions limiting public gatherings, it is estimated that around 15,000 protesters gathered in Warsaw on Friday. The demonstrants firstly assembled outside the home of PiS’ leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, which was cordoned by riot police, and then marched towards the city center. Although the previous day protesters clashed with police, who used tear against them, the atmosphere on Friday seemed calmer. Men and women of all ages could be seen, all of them fighting for Polish women’s rights in a touching sense of unity and solidatity.
The protests have been mainly organized by Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (National Women’s Strike) under slogans such as To Jest Wojna (“This is war”), Piekło Kobiet (“Hell of women”) or Wypierdalać (“Fuck off”). The image of a red lightning has become the main symbol of the protests.
A blockade on all main Polish cities was called on Monday, a general strike is taking place on Wednesday in which thousands of people are expected to take part and people from the whole country are called to go to the capital on Friday to participate in a massive protest.
In a joint Statement, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Right Watch expressed their concerns about women’s human rights in Poland. They stated that they would send observers to monitor the decisions taken by the Polish Constitutional Court.
The Council of Europe has already condemned the new abortion law and Dunja Mijatović, commissioner for human rights, called it ‘a sad day for #WomensRights’. Donald Tusk, former Polish PM and current president of the European People’s Party also spoke up and said that “throwing in the topic of abortion and holding a pseudo-tribunal on it in the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynicism. This is political villainy”.
Since the new law, several associations and private individuals have been spreading information of Aborcja Bez Granic (“Abortion without borders”), an organization which provides Polish women with information, support and economic aid to have access to abortion. Moreover, protests do not seem about to stop anytime soon and they are increasingly getting international media coverage.
Even though no change may come these protests will serve to give a voice to millions of Polish women and will raise both national and international awareness on this topic. Next elections will not happen until 2023, so only time will tell us what more PiS has in store for the country.
Picture Credits: Leyre Castro, Personal file
If you would like to learn more about the situation in Poland, check out this discussion between Leyre & Anton Meshkov from the project United Citizens of Europe.