Protests and a new spontaneous movement for abortion rights erupt
A plan to introduce a total ban on abortion in Poland has angered a significant section of the Polish population. It has sparked a series of large demonstrations in Warsaw and other cities as well as a spontaneous movement fighting for abortion rights involving tens of thousands of women. Solidarity protests have also taken place outside Polish embassies around Europe, with CWI members participating and often organising the protests, such as in Dublin and Vienna. Not only are protesters opposing the introduction of a total ban, but they are also demanding the liberalisation of Poland’s already restrictive law under the slogan “Reclaim Choice”. One of the key demands of the movement is for abortion on demand.
The anti-abortion law was introduced in 1993 in the early years of the restoration of capitalism in Poland under intense pressure from the Catholic Church, which was seen as a key pillar of support for the establishment of capitalism and the resulting rampant neoliberalism.
At that time about 70% of society was against the introduction of the abortion ban and supported the existing law, which allowed access to abortion "for social reasons". Nevertheless, the ban was forced through against the wishes of the majority of society, along with the introduction of religion in schools and the signing of the Concordat, which gave huge material privileges to the Church. The conservatives ruling the country at the time described the new law as a "compromise", because it allowed abortion in three cases – in cases of rape, a threat to the pregnant woman’s life or health, or malformation of the foetus. Doctors who performed illegal abortions faced jail, but the pregnant women who underwent an abortion were not criminalised.
However, in practice even women who fulfil these extremely restrictive conditions for a legal abortion are denied access, which puts their life or health in danger or forces them to give birth to a rapist’s child. Increasingly, doctors use the the so-called “conscience clause” to refuse an abortion to women who fulfil the conditions for legal abortions. Often they also refuse to write prescriptions for contraception. Women have also been refused contraception by pharmacists when presented with a valid prescritption!
Two years ago there was a well-publicised case of a pregnant woman who was refused an abortion after prenatal tests revealed that the foetus was badly malformed and would not survive more than a few days after birth. Nevertheless, the doctor in charge of the hospital refused to allow the woman to terminate the pregnancy on grounds of his conscience and delayed referring her to another hospital so that the pregnancy passed the 22 week limit for a legal abortion. Right up to the moment of birth, he argued that the child had a decent chance of survival and would be able to lead a normal life. Of course, this was a blatant and cynical lie – the child died a few days after birth. This case showed the barbaric and callous side of the opponents of abortion, who prefer to force women and their families to go through unnecesary suffering.
Despite the public outrage, over the years protests against such cases dwindled and in recent years have tended to be small – usually about 50 to 200 people – with attendance limited to the small group of women’s rights activists and left-wing groups.
After the electoral victory of the right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PiS), attacks against women’s rights were expected. But it seems that the government didn’t intend to play this card so soon, since they are still benefiting from the effect of implementing some of their election promises.
However, a protest movement erupted at the end of March this year when the Polish Episcopate called on the government to introduce a total ban on abortion. At the same time, a pro-life organisation anounced that they were well on the way to collecting the 100,000 signatures necessary to submit a draft law for consideration by the Polish parliament with the intention of introducing a total ban on abortion. These proposals were supported by the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, Premier Beata Szydło and other pro-lifers.
In spite of the unexpected character of this announcement, it was met with a huge spontaneous reaction and provoked an elemental movement. A number of rallies took place on the following day. Feminist groups and the left party Razem mobilized on social networks for demonstrations on 3 April. One of the facebook groups – Dziewuchy dziewuchom – grew to 66,000 members in only 2 days and after one week has over 100,000 members!
There is real anger at the barbarity of what is being proposed and the hypocrisy of the pro-lifers, Law and Justice and the Catholic Church. Opinion polls show over 70% against a total ban! One poll showed as much as 87% in support of abortion when a woman’s life is in danger. Support for liberalisation of the law is lower, but hovers around 50% depending on the polling institution.
On Sunday 3 April, around 7,000 demonstrated in Warsaw, 2,000 in Krakow and several hundred in a number of other Polish cities, as well as protests in London and Oslo. In the Polish context, those numbers represent a big mobilisation compared to protests on this issue in the past. In Warsaw and Kraków, demonstrations were bigger than for women’s day, although the latter are prepared months before.
Most people had never been on women’s rights demonstrations before and were not connected with any left groups. Protesters were of all ages and there were many men as well as families with kids. But the average age was quite low – between 20 and 35 – lower than the demonstrations over the dispute around the Constitutional Tribunal a few months ago .
Another action was to walk out of churches on Sunday morning during the reading of the bishops’ letter, which called for the end of the so-called “compromise”, for a total ban on abortion and for the criminalisation of everyone involved in illegal abortions. Of course, many admit that they went to the mass only for this occasion, but the number who walked out was impressive and videos of this went viral on the Polish internet. In some chuches in Krakow, priests gave up reading the letter. Of course, this action caused outrage, but the reply of women’s rights campaigners was “as long as you bring religion into politics, we will bring politics into your church”.
There was also an action connected with the hash tag #Trudnyokres (difficult period) – where women describe in detail their periods on the Prime Minister’s Facebook profile. A campaign to encourage mass apostasy (resignation from the Catholic Church) has also been organised.
Campaigners have also been hanging coat hangers on church gates, outside the Polish parliament, and outside Polish embassies all over Europe and beyond. Coat hangers symbolize underground abortions, and have became a symbol of the movement. This is intended as a reminder that banning abortions does not reduce the number of abortions that take place but makes their conditions more dangerous. Every year, between 80,000 and 200,000 women in Poland have illegal abortions with the lack of medical follow-up and the financial cost that this implies.
Aside from the health issues, other slogans demanded the right to control one’s own body and the end of the interference of the Church in Polish politics and education. Most importantly, the demand for full liberalisation of the law, meaning abortion on demand, has been very prominent from the beginning.
The day after the first demonstrations, the Prime Minister had already started to retreat, stating that she had only “expressed a personal opinion”. Rather than driving the demonstrators home, this raised their confidence in their power to bend the government. A new committee, “Reclaim Choice Alliance”, called a demonstration for Saturday 9 April outside parliament. The Reclaim Choice Alliance unites groups and people fighting for abortion rights. Within one week 70 organisations had signed up. These are women’s groups and left-wing groups that have been fighting for women’s rights for many years.
But while the Reclaim Choice Alliance is firm about the need to fight for full liberalisation of the law, in the much broader grassroots facebook movement, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, there are many conflicting views about the way forward. Voices can be heard to limit the struggle to only fighting a total ban and oppose free abortion on demand. Some even argue that the movement should focus on the struggle around the Constitutional Tribunal which has been led by the liberals from the Nowoczesna party and KOD (the overwhelmingly liberal and middle-class movement that has focused on constitutional issues).
Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (CWI in Poland) argues that to limit ourselves to only defending the status quo is a strategy that will lead to defeat. It means giving in to the pro-life arguments of the right-wing and the Catholic Church without even putting up a fight. We must explain the desperate situation of thousands and tens of thousands of women whose health and lives are put at risk by the ban. We demand full access to abortions – free abortion on demand. We also demand free and good quality health care for women without the possibility of doctors to block treatment due to their so-called "religious conscience". We argue that many unwanted pregnancies can be prevented by guaranteeing free access to contraception and replacing religion in schools with sexual education. We also raise demands that would give women a real choice – so that they can decide whether they want to have a child or not and also when. So among our demands are the demands for free IVF treatment and also a guaranteed free place in public creches and pre-schools for every child. The question of housing, a decent minimum wage and job security are also factors that affect a women’s right to choose, which is why the movement should turn towards the trade unions for support.
Women make up an important and large part of the workforce in Poland. Increasingly they are organised in trade unions, and tend to be the most militant of trade unionists. It is necessary to explain to trade unionists of the importance of this issue for their members. Despite the resistance of the trade union bureaucracy, we believe that if the issues are patiently and skillfully explained and our demands presented to them, it is possible to convince rank and file trade unionists and win them over to the struggle for a woman’s right to choose.
We in Alternatywa Socjalistyczna believe that by campaigning around these issues, very soon it would be possible to win the majority of society over to supporting the liberalisation of the abortion law. Jarosław Kaczyński and his Law and Justice party would be forced to abandon the plans to introduce a total ban if they saw that they are having the opposite effect on pubilc opinion.
Already the cracks are beginning to appear, with rumours that the draft law may be pushed into parliamentary limbo by Law and Justice. However, we cannot be complacent – we must keep up the pressure. The struggle for full abortion rights must continue.