The struggle for abortion rights in Poland continues


Abortion rights are once again under attack in Poland, and women have turned out in full force to fight back. On Oct. 22, the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s highest court, ruled that abortion in the case of severe fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. Poland already has the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union. Prior to the court’s decision, abortion was only permissible in cases of rape and incest, threat to a mother’s life, or severe fetal abnormality. Fetal abnormality accounted for 97% of the 1100 legal abortions performed in 2018. This effectively bans abortion in the country.

The decision arose from an initiative by MPs of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) to review the law. The party has made several previous attempts to ban abortion. Reproductive rights advocates argue that the new law will force women to endure non-viable pregnancies. On account of hundreds of thousands of people joining in protest, the government announced on Nov. 3 that it would delay publishing the ruling to offer more time for discussion.

The public backlash against the ruling was immediate and massive. On Sunday, Oct. 25, activists converged on churches to express their outrage over the restriction. CNN reported that protesters at Poznan Cathedral proclaimed that Catholics need abortions too. They also took to the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual in Warsaw with a slogan calling upon parishoners to pray for the right to abortion. Around the country, mass was disrupted and canceled, with sit-ins staged at some cathedrals, statues of Pope John Paul II defaced, and some churches graffitied with slogans such as “Women’s Hell.” Protesters also poured red paint on Warsaw’s Lazienkowski Bridge.

Demonstrators wore Handmaid’s Tale robes and carried coat hangers. In actions rich in symbolism, women have also donned a red lighting bolt, which is an emblem of the Women’s Strike movement. The protesters targeted the church to demand separation between church and decry the church’s support of the government and its support of abortion restrictions. Women’s Strike, the main organizing force behind the protests, called for continued demonstrations on Monday, Oct. 26, and a strike on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

Protests on Oct. 28 were held in over 400 cities and by police estimates numbered over 430,000. Across the country, women left work to join the strike and in Warsaw, activists blocked traffic. Warsaw alone had over 100,000 protesters turn out. Some carried umbrellas, a symbol from the 2016 mobilization to defend legal abortion. Military and riot police were deployed against the Wednesday marches.

The New York Times reported that the massive demonstrations that occurred later in the week on Friday, Oct. 30, were the largest since the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. One popular slogan was “I think, I feel, decide.” Another slogan was “This is war.” Young women make up the largest demographic of these abortion activists. Demonstrators gathered in front of the government headquarters, the headquarters for the ruling party, and the main square of the city center.

The main demand of the Women’s Strike has been for the ruling to be declared invalid. Protesters have also come out against the Law and Justice government, which won last year’s parliamentary elections, with slogans such as “fuck off” and “fuck PiS” (Law and Justice Party). In response to the largest protests on Friday, President Andrzej Duda suggested that he was open to compromise and that terminal fetal abnormalities might be permissible and the government missed a Nov. 2 deadline to enact the decision by publishing it.

Violent attacks by the far right

The protests have been marked violence from right-wing extremists. During the Friday, Oct. 30, protests, military police guarded Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross and the far-right protesters within the police cordon. Anti-choice activists played the sounds of crying babies on a megaphone as abortion rights marchers passed. Of the 37 people arrested in Warsaw on Friday, 35 were nationalists. Black-clad men attacked one of the protesters, but demonstrators fought back with what appeared to be pepper spray.  Some of the men arrested were carrying batons and knives.

The New York Times reported that abortion rights activists have been attacked with flares. Two female reporters from Gazeta Wyborcza were attacked earlier last week. On Monday, Oct. 26, two women were struck by a car, which to observers looked intentional, as they participated in the protests. During the Sunday, Oct. 25, protests, a woman was thrown down steps at Church of the Holy Cross in central Warsaw as abortion rights activists clashed with far-right militants.

Men from the group All Polish Youth attacked activists in Wroclaw, Bialystok, and Poznan on Wednesday, Oct. 28. All Polish Youth have been behind attacks on LGBTQ marches. In 2019, the group attacked a pride march in Biyalastok with bottles, rocks, and firecrackers. Robert Bakiewicz, a right-wing extremist leader, threatened that his supporters would form a national guard of a Catholic self-defense force to confront what he called “neo-Bolshevik revolutionaries.” The far-right group Falanga has also made threats of violence.

Role of the Law and Justice Party

The Law and Justice Party has encouraged and empowered the far right since coming to power in 2015. Early last week, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the party, called upon supporters to defend the Church at any cost. This rhetoric has been criticized as a call to arms to violent right-wing extremists. He later stated that even fetuses with no chance of survival should be born so they can be named, baptized, and buried. Activists have been called left-wing fascists on state television. CIVICUS and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) have both stated that protests have been met with excessive force from both the state and far-right groups.

The Law and Justice Party (PiS) is a right-wing populist party that won the 2019 elections by running on a socially conservative platform that includes nationalism, opposition to migration, traditional family values, Catholicism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, anti-communism, and anti-Semitism. They have increased the teaching of Catholic values in public schools, attacked LGBT rights, and ended state funding of in-vitro fertilization. Yet, they won over less reactionary voters and the support of labor by making promises such as doubling minimum wage by 2023, increasing payments to retirees, and had already enacted a popular subsidy to low income families called 500 plus.

In July, Andrzej Duda, of the PiS, won a second presidential term by a narrow margin of 51% of the vote over 49% for Rafał Trzaskowski, Civic Platform (PO). As in the U.S. political elections, these are not vastly different parties, though the PO was framed as the more liberal party. When PO was last in power, it increased retirement age and lowered pensions and ran a campaign that was mostly against PiS rather than for any particular program.

Law and Justice Party (PiS) has made several efforts to ban abortion, including an attempt in October 2016 to pass a law that would have banned abortion and imposed prison terms on abortion patients and providers. Hundreds of thousands of black-clad women joined a “Black Monday” general strike from work, school, and domestic labor to defeat the legislation.

According to Madeline Roach reporting for Foreign Policy, in July 2017 the government passed a law making emergency contraception available only by prescription. In 2018, school textbooks were issued that called embryos unborn children and claimed that contraceptives were a health hazard. Even without the government’s anti-abortion campaign, due to the clause of conscience, doctors do not have to perform abortions on moral grounds. In the region of Podkarpackie, more than 3000 doctors signed the clause, which renders abortion unavailable in that area. Only 10% of hospitals perform abortion, according to FEDERA.

In 2014, Dr. Bogdan Chazan refused to perform an abortion on a deformed fetus on moral grounds or tell the mother that the abortion would be illegal after 12 weeks. Because of this, she was forced to give birth to a baby without a skull, which died nine days later. Abortion is certainly a contentious issue in Poland, yet according to Reuters, a 2018 opinion poll showed that only 15% of the population supported tightening the already restrictive abortion laws.

Despite public opinion against this, in April 2020, Law and Justice Party lawmakers again debated banning abortion, this time in the case of fetal abnormaities. The government also considered citizen-initiated legislation that would have equated homosexuality with pedophilia and criminalize sex education for minors with up to three years imprisonment. In response, activists held socially distanced actions with their cars, social media, and bicycles. This forestalled the passage of the legislation, as the lower house of parliament sent the bill back to a parliamentary commission for more work.

Previous attempts to ban abortion through legistlation have failed due to the efforts of abortion rights activists, which may be why the Law and Justice Party sought a review from the constitutional tribunal. Fourteen of the 15 judges on the court were chosen by the Law and Justice Party to serve nine-year terms. Three judges are believed by legal scholars to have been appointed by illegal means. Aside from the this new tactic of using the high court to ban abortion, some activists believe that the abortion ban was a reward to the Catholic church and the far right for its support in the previous elections and a distraction from the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Challenge of COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 has presented serious challenges to abortion access and activism. According to Euronews, when the Polish government closed its borders, Justyna Wydrzynska, an activist with Aborcyjny Dream Team reported the phones of the organization were ringing non-stop. The organization normally receives 10 calls a day. Many callers were worried about accessing abortion pills, which are illegal in Poland. According to Hannah Summers for The Guardian, Polish hospitals have already turned women away who are seeking abortion. The Federation of Family Planning has been inundated with phone calls from panicked women who have had their appointments cancelled and whose fetuses have abnormalities.

Abortion without Borders, an organization formed in December 2019 to help Polish women access abortion, has been challenged by border closures and quarantine. The thousands of women who travel to Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have been blocked off from this access. Nevertheless, Abortion without Borders has managed to help 21 women access abortion in other countries since the ruling.

It should be noted that offering assistance in obtaining an illegal abortion can result in a three-year prison sentence. Yet, the vast majority of abortions in Poland are illegal, with activists estimating that although the number of legal abortions is only around 1000, there are over 150,000 illegal abortions each year. Aside from travel, abortion is accessed through doctors or other providers who provide high cost abortions in secret.

With 20,000 new COVID-19 infections each day, politicians have been quick to shame activists for protesting the court ruling. Like Trump, even President Andrzej Duda has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Large gatherings are prohibited and bars and universities are closed. The government issued a ban on gatherings of more than five people, which was implemented the same week of the court ruling. Organizers have been threatened with eight years imprisonment for violating the ban and causing what the government has deemed an epidemiological threat. Activists have been told to consider the elderly or vulnerable people they may sicken. At the same time, Poland has the lowest ratio of health workers to population in the EU. Over the years, austerity and privatization has gutted the Polish health-care system, rendering it incapable of meeting the pressures of the pandemic in terms of staffing, testing, and intensive care beds.

The fluctuation of abortion laws in Poland

Law and Justice Party’s aggressive attacks on abortion rights are only the most recent and certainly won’t be the last. According to Wanda Nowica in the book “SexPolitics: Reports from the Front Lines,” the end of the Stalinist regime in Poland marked the beginning of attacks on reproductive rights. The current laws are actually similar to the 1932 Criminal Code in Poland, in which abortion was only legal if the pregnancy was result of a crime or if women’s life and health was a risk. These laws remained in effect until 1956, when abortion was decriminalized but required the signatures of two doctors. At the time, abortion was legalized on the basis of the health risks imposed by illegal abortions.

Abortion law was further liberalized in 1959, when abortion became available upon demand. This ended in 1993 with the Act on Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection and Conditions of Permissibility of Abortion, which removed the social grounds for seeking an abortion. Doctors also played an important role in the ban, as the General Assembly of Physicians adopted the Code of Medical Ethics, which only allowed abortion on medical and criminal grounds. The was an effort to organize against abortion restrictions, as the Committee for a Referendum on the Criminalization of Abortion garnered 1.3 million signatures demanding a national referendum on abortion, but this was ignored by the Parliament in 1992.

Lech Wałęsa vetoed an attempt to liberalize abortion laws in 1994.  In 1996, when abortion laws were amended and abortion was again briefly legal on social grounds. The Solidarity trade union challenged the new law through the Constitutional Tribunal, which determined that abortion on social grounds was indeed unconstitutional.

In the early 2000s, Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union promised to liberalize the law, but never made good on the promise. Parliament refused to take up the issue in 2005. Recent years have seen attacks on abortion rights, but the decades since the fall of Stalinism have been marked with broken promises, compromises, neoliberalism, and pandering to the Catholic Church. This is not to idealize the Stalinist regime in Poland, but to highlight that abortion was a casualty in the transition to capitalism and that liberals, social democrats, and conservatives have upheld abortion restrictions.

The spectacular turn-out of Polish women has temporarily suspended the enforcement of the court ruling, but there is a long battle ahead. In Poland, as in all capitalist countries, there will always be social pressure for women to reproduce. In this sense, reproductive rights are never secure so long as capitalism persists. Capitalism requires the oppression of women as this ensures that workers are cared for, babies are born, and children are raised with unpaid labor and the most meager social provisioning.

Nowica noted that in 1988, the fertility rate in Poland was 2.4; in 1993 it was 1.8; and by 2005 it was 1.22. In 2020, it is 1.39.  Replacement fertility is 2.1, but forced birth combined with austerity is a particularly brutal method of ensuring social reproduction. This brutality is masked by the sanctity of life rhetoric of the Catholic Church, but this itself has changed over the centuries with different theological debates regarding ensoulment. The hardline stance against abortion after conception only came about in 1869. It seems that women in Poland have had enough and are willing to stand against both the Church and the state, which in Poland are deeply interconnected. Both of these things are malleable and can be changed through struggle.

Ultimately, this struggle must tear up the economic roots of oppression for reforms to be lasting. It is little wonder that the Law and Justice Party seeks to divide, pitting reproductive rights against the rights of people with disabilities to be born. But it is capitalism, not women, which ultimately devalues the lives of people with disabilities. It is within the framework of capitalism that impairment is made into disability, as it is a system that cannot accommodate different needs and places value on regimented labor capacity above all else. The struggle in Poland is part of a struggle for all oppressed people to control their bodies and destinies.

Photo: Wojtek Radwanski / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

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