I N T E R N A T I O N A L A F F A I R S – P O L A N D
“In this country, because of the politics and doctrine of the government and the religious fanatics, someone who is different is worse. The way they treat LGBT people, migrants, all minorities – and now women… Society has had enough.”
— Maria Kowalczyk
Anarchy raged through the streets of Warsaw, Poland on Friday night, 30 October, as tens of thousands of people made their voices heard with furious cries of protest to a government that would otherwise not heed them. This nationwide uproar, which had been the culmination of days of protests across the country since the 22nd, was in response to an attempt by the state to deprive its women of whatever sliver of rights they had left in regards to their body.
On 22 October, a law was passed by Poland’s constitutional court, an amendment to the country’s already restrictive laws on abortion. The law states that the termination of a pregnancy would only be legal if the pregnancy was the result of an illegal act, or threatened the woman’s health or life. All other grounds for abortion would be deemed unconstitutional. This includes cases where abortion is carried out due to fetal malformations, which accounted for roughly 98% of Poland’s legal abortions in 2019.
Poland is considered a deeply Catholic country by many, and it would be in character for the Church to meddle in state affairs and make systematic reforms. Demonstrations occurred in open defiance of a ban on gatherings of more than five people due to Covid-19, outlining just how desperate the citizens were for progressive change, and how much they had been stifled by restrictive laws.
Organised and led by the Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Polish Women’s Strike) movement, the people’s demands far exceeded abortion rights and called for better LGBTQ+ rights, greater support for education and healthcare, as well as independence of lawmaking procedures from Catholic influence. The movement garnered a massive amount of support over a short period of time.
Since the right-wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party, or Law and Justice party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, came to power in 2015, abortion laws have stiffened in Poland in accordance with traditional Catholic ethics and values. Liberal policies regarding abortion have seen rapid deterioration since the 1990s, after the end of the Communist rule, as the Catholic Church tightened its grip on the state. PiS eventually gained a strong foothold in the Polish parliament.
However, disapproval of the Church’s influence in matters of constitutional legislation also grew steadily, and when the abortion law was passed, all underlying resentment against the Church turned into full-blown outrage. Church services across the country have been disrupted by protesters, who called for the separation of the Church and the state. Maria Kowalczyk, a 38-year-old beauty journalist, said at the Warsaw protests, “In this country, because of the politics and doctrine of the government and the religious fanatics, someone who is different is worse. The way they treat LGBT people, migrants, all minorities — and now women…Society has had enough.”
Members of PiS were apparently shocked that taking away nearly all abortion rights from women would lead to such an outcry. In spite of the overwhelming backlash, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, ever so bold, did not falter in his stance. In an official statement, he condemned the protests for violating Covid-related health directives and, ironically, called on his far-right supporters to defend the churches.
Members of PiS were apparently shocked that taking away nearly all abortion rights from women would lead to such an outcry.
This was perceived as an abandonment of the people of the nation in favour of the Catholic Church. His statement, criticised for instigating more chaos, seems to have done little more than stoke the flames of a pacifist protest, as many acts of violence against the otherwise largely peaceful demonstrations have followed. Coupled with internal conflicts in the party regarding the tribunal’s decision, PiS finds itself disrupted and scattered. Hence, the government has decided to delay the implementation of the law indefinitely.
Many women’s organisations have estimated that roughly 200,000 Polish women have abortions annually, 15% of whom travel to surrounding countries for the procedure. Only around 1,000 such procedures are conducted legally within borders. This already minuscule number would shrink drastically should the new law be imposed. The processes involved in operations abroad usually take long periods of time, time that the women often don’t have.
Most women, however, simply lack the financial capability for such a procedure, and are forced to choose local, illegal means, which could prove fatal. The government’s penalisation of medical personnel instead of the women themselves leads to doctors denying to even conduct legal terminations of pregnancies in many cases. These factors can only be further evidence to the sheer hopelessness Polish women feel, when the remainder of their lives are stolen from them by a government that swore to protect them.
The grave situation of the country seemed to resonate particularly with the youth, who have made up the majority of protesters in the movement. Minors have taken to the streets with placards and slogans to protest restrictive, regressive policies.
The demonstrations across the country bear a striking resemblance to the Black Protest of October 2016, which was similarly colossal in scale and successfully thwarted the state’s first attempts to impose a near-ban on abortion. Although, in contrast to the Black Protest, which involved many community events and activities, these protests represent a more direct approach to the demand for progressive change.
The mobilisation of young people in national politics is sure to make the country take a turn for the better. And so, the only hope afforded to the victims of the state’s oppressive restrictions is the promise of a brighter future, shaped by today’s youth.
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.