After a near-total ban on abortion, Polish women fight back

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Over the past decade, we have witnessed a deep transformation within international politics. This shift has seen the rise of right-wing populism and the normalisation of the extreme right across the world. Let’s just think, for instance, that Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, has recently founded a far-right alliance in Europe together with Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. 

As part of this shift, the rise of the extreme right in Poland has caused brutal consequences for its population, in particular for women and LGBTQ+ people. Since winning the 2005 elections, the country’s governing party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has been accused of targeting women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the media and the country’s court system.

After a brief period at the opposition (2007-2015), the party came to power again in 2015 and was recently re-elected in 2019. Over the years, Law and Justice has promoted traditionalist views, especially on social issues. They have focused on pro-family policies, such as the Family 500+ program, a monthly allowance of 500 złoty (about £92) per child for each kid after the first. The party has fostered anti-LGBT propaganda and encouraged the creation of LGBT-free zones in the country.

[Read: Challenging the far-right and climate change in Poland]

Reproductive health has also been at the centre of the attention of Law and Justice. Despite Poland having one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, the party has been openly opposing the right to abortion for years. In 2016, a proposal was put forward by activist anti-abortion group PRO which was set to criminalise women who terminated their pregnancies even in the event of sexual violence or in case of severe fetal defects. The proposal prompted the Czarny Protest, a national day of strike where thousands of Polish women protested against and managed to stop a near-total ban on abortion.

Four years later, however, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal drastically changed the course of women’s rights in the country. On 22 October 2020, chief justice Julia Przyłębska stated in a ruling that existing legislation allowing for the abortion of malformed foetuses was “incompatible” with the constitution. Polish women took the streets under the banner of Strajk Kobiet (Women’s strike) with the intention of replicating the 2016 protests and stop the ban.

On 27 January 2021, the Constitutional Court’s statement was finally published in the Journal of Laws, thus allowing its decision to fully come into effect. The publication sparked again protests across the entire country but it hasn’t been repealed so far.

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Nowadays, abortion is only practised in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health and life, – which make up only about 2% of legal terminations conducted in recent years in Poland.

According to the Polish Criminal Code, anybody who carries out an abortion, helps or incites to abortion is punishable with up to three years in prison. Shall abortion happen “after the foetus has become capable of living outside the pregnant woman’s body”, the penalty is between six months and eight years of imprisonment.

“Due to COVID and, you know, protest fatigue, we stopped protesting,” said Aleksandra Sidoruk, a Polish activist. “On the one hand, I feel this was a rational decision because participation became smaller and smaller.” She explained that activists didn’t want the media to interpret this trend as a decrease in support of the cause because, as figures by Abortion without Borders show, abortion might be illegal but it hasn’t surely stopped.

An initiative founded in 2019 to support women in unintended pregnancies, Abortion Without Borders released a statement in April saying that, in the span of six months after the Polish constitutional court ruling, it had helped a total of 17,000 people access abortion. Its services were offered either at home (using pills) or abroad. Five hundred ninety-seven people were able to terminate their pregnancy abroad in the second trimester. The financial support exceeded 420,000 PLN (£79,500).

After months of protests and planning, in February Sidoruk and other activists formed the legislative initiative committee “Legal Abortion. No Compromise”, which has been recently approved by the Polish Parliament. Composed of representatives of Polish feminist organisations and MPs from left-wing party Lewica and the Greens, the legislative committee plans on proposing a new draft bill called “Legal Abortion. No Compromise.” The new law would liberalise access to voluntary termination of pregnancy.

[Read: Back Off Scotland: fighting for abortion rights]

“Right now, we need to collect a hundred thousand signatures in order for the bill to be debated and voted on by the Parliament,” said Sidoruk. The draft law includes:

  • the right to safe termination of pregnancy until the 12th week, and after that for special cases;
  • the introduction of a standardised procedure for medical entities to deal with a person who wants to terminate the pregnancy early on;
  • the reform of the rules regarding conscious objection;
  • depenalization of abortion both for doctors and patients;
  • extension of the prenatal tests program to the PAPP-A protein test.

Now that the Committee has been registered, “the campaign may end in three ways,” said Sidoruk. She explained that the bill could either be passed by the Sejm (lower house of the Parliament) and the Senate with a chance to enter into force, or it may be rejected, especially given the current conservative majority in the parliament. Alternatively, it may end up in what Sidoruk calls the “parliamentary freezer” and put on hold for an undefined length of time. 

“Some might say that us pushing this bill doesn’t make any sense because there is still a conservative majority in Parliament but look at Argentina,” said Sidoruk. She refers to the events of December 2020, when Argentina became the largest Latin American country to legalise abortion. The bill legalised terminations in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy after Argentina’s Senate approved the historic law change by 38 votes in favour to 29 against, with one abstention.

“Going down the legislative route seemed to work in Argentina, where they debated for 12 hours. In the beginning, it seemed like women could not stand a chance, eight or nine projects of the bill were not accepted,” said Sidoruk. “They did it though and abortion has been legalised, no reason needed. That’s why we won’t stop either.”

[If you are living in Poland and wish to sign the petition, you can find more info here.]

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Given the continuing failure of the left wing parties across Europe to produce narratives that attract sufficient numbers of voters, it has been likely that opposition to the authoritarian right wing would come from groups pursuing particular ‘issues’ (This is not used in a pejorative or dismissive way), such as abortion rights, climate change, etc.

    While many on the left do, indeed, support such groups, the leadership of the parties, such as Keir Starmer in the UK Labour, are wary to the point of fear, because they see many of their ‘traditional’ supporters as socially conservative. But, since the 1990s many ‘centre left parties have accepted the Thatcherite economic line and have jettisoned policies regarding the redistribution of wealth and power. And it was this betrayal which alienated the ‘traditional’ supporters, while charlatans like Mr Johnson fed their xenophobic prejudices. Of course, a majority of ‘traditional’ voters are not like the stereotypes, but some stopped voting and a few were swayed by the hate language of Johnson et al and the media.

    So, groups, such as these heroic Polish women have to pursue their rights on a particular issue.

    1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

      ‘the leadership of the parties, such as Keir Starmer in the UK Labour, are wary to the point of fear, because they see many of their ‘traditional’ supporters as socially conservative’.

      I appreciate this comment. If only we were brave enough to embrace a radical re-personalising of our politics; to stand for the idea that people can be trusted, in all their complex humanity, to work out what is best for their bodies, for their families, for their communities, and for their countries – given the resources and the structures.

      The ‘centralisation’ of all political power is unnecessary, illiberal, and skews to ‘male’ power. We see it in politics, of course, but in so many powerful institutions like churches: fear itself encourages more fear, more ‘conservatism’.

      At a time when humanity is faced with the existential challenge of climate breakdown, we have to find our collective courage to become more fully human, rather than the pale imitation represented by ‘conservative’ policies.

    2. Colin Robinson says:

      Another way of looking at this is that, in our post-industrial society, our politics have become a lot more ‘civic’; that is, rights-based than class-based. An implication of this would be that the old, backwards-looking class-based socialist and ethnic-nationalist politics have become conservative (or even regressive) forces rather than a progressive force. They certainly don’t have the popular appeal that they used to have prior to Thatcher’s revolution.

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