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Poland’s Historic Fight for Abortion Rights

This week Poland banned abortion after its government stacked the courts with right-wing ideologues. But they didn't count on women fighting back – and now face a historic wave of protest.

Poland is on fire. During a historic recession, amid the worst pandemic since WW1, the Constitutional Court decided that abortion is unconstitutional in cases of lethal foetal abnormalities. This decision unleashed a wave of furious women’s protests, without precedent in democratic Poland.

The Polish abortion regulation bill from 1993 stated that abortion was legal in three cases: when pregnancy is a result of rape, when the life of the mother is at risk, or in case of lethal foetal abnormalities. In the last decade, an estimated 95-97% of legal abortions in Poland were carried out due to the latter condition, meaning that the recent verdict is an effective ban on abortion, with only the remaining 3% of cases remaining legal.

Law and Justice is responsible for the current makeup of the Constitutional Court; part of the legal establishment believes that the Court has been politicised to the point that its decisions are not legally binding. The debate between the lawyers is one thing, but something much bigger is happening: women are organising politically in the biggest mobilisation in the country’s history.

The government had already tried to pass an anti-abortion bill written by a far-right legal think tank, Ordo Iuris, once before but had to abandon their plans up to an unrelenting wave of ‘black protests’ of an estimated 160,000 protesters back in 2016. So far, women’s protests have been the only fully effective social mobilisation against the Law and Justice government – the only ones to force the government to take a step back.

If the mobilisation in 2016 was big, 2020 is a force of nature. Picketing, chanting, spontaneous walks in over 80 towns and cities, several marches of over 50,000 people. The current protests take place after the decision has already been made, when we know for a fact that roughly a thousand women each year will be forced to carry to term foetuses with severe abnormalities.

In the streets, one can hear the resounding anger, helplessness, naked fury. The biggest pro-choice organisation, the Nationwide Women’s Strike (OSK) named their campaign ‘This Is War’: the protests developed immediately after the announcement of the ruling on Thursday night. As thousands of people gathered by the Warsaw residence of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, tens if not hundreds of police vans arrived at the scene. In the early morning hours, the protesters were hit with tear gas by the police.

The next day, the OSK organised a series of mass-demonstrations in all major Polish cities. The protests are massive, furious and unusually vulgar. “Get the f*** out!” is the official slogan of the protest: only a few months ago, this kind of language would have been unthinkable. The previous wave of political protests maintained a certain liberal decorum: witty slogans, caricature, satire, imagery, a blasphemous rhyme here and there. Now the slogans are both violent and clearly anti-government. As we roamed the streets of Warsaw in an eleven kilometre march, people gathered on balconies to wave and swear together, drivers sounded their horns to reinforce the slogans; a display of solidarity I have never seen before.

Each day new groups are joining the protests. Last Sunday, in the little town of Nowy Dwor Gdanski (population 10,000), the women’s protest was reinforced by a long tractor column of protesting farmers who had just finished picketing against changes in the animal welfare bill. In several towns women’s protests were joined by football fans; in Praga, an old working-class part of Warsaw, middle-aged men started posting photos on local Facebook groups showing their support. Some of them took selfies making a characteristic ‘L’ sign with their fingers – a clear indicator that they are Legia football team supporters.

The trade union of taxi drivers organised their own protest unit, many local council institutions added the symbol of the strike – a red thunderbolt. The government pushes the propaganda to the limits: the protest has already been compared to the SS, the Gestapo, Italian fascism, Bolshevism, etc. The panic is apparent.

Interestingly, the gender balance of the protests has significantly shifted since 2016, when the last massive wave of protests took place. Back then, there were mostly women. Now, people come with their families, friends, colleagues. Last Friday I saw a large corporate group organising before joining the march, bringing along partners, parents and children. The youth plays a leading role in the protests: instead of the old bards of the past revolutions, the music of the protests is Eric Prydz’s Call On Me, Rage Against the Machine, Miley Cirus or new wave Polish synthpop. Technically, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, teenagers under the age of 16 are not legally permitted to leave the house. “We have a government to topple,” the slogans say.

On Tuesday, five days into the powerful, nationwide women’s mobilisation, Kaczyński delivered a 6-minute address to the nation. The speech was both offensive and surreal; the level of disconnect with the social reality quite shocking. “There are no alternative systems of morality to that offered by the Catholic Church,” he said. “Rejecting the Church means nihilism.” He called on his supporters to “defend the churches at any cost. This protest will bring an end to the history of this nation.”

I was not even a year old when Poland began its transition to democracy, so Tuesday was the first time in my lifetime that an active member of the government, the de facto leader of the nation, declared war on his own people. It is telling that the word ‘women’ does not appear once in his speech; the protesters are depicted as genderless ‘nihilists’ who “commit a very serious crime” by not following the Covid restrictions.

The video has an eerie quality to it, it seems filmed in mid-1990s; Kaczyński sits with his big, puffed-up pale palms sitting uncomfortably close to the viewers. He even suggested the protesters were trained abroad – the oldest trick in the book. The whole movement asked questions yesterday: Has he actually lost it? Will the army be used to pacify the protests? One of the opposition party leaders commented in response to Kaczyński’s address: “Even if by some miracle people on both sides keep their cool, provocations will happen. You will have blood on your hands.” All of this is happening as Covid cases are sky-rocketing, currently standing at 18,000 cases per day.

To persist in such a distinctly threatening situation requires character. The leader of the Nationwide Women’s Strike (OSK), Marta Lempart, called for a strike on Wednesday, October 28th, and a march through Warsaw on October 30th. The leadership of the OSK published a list of demands, including the removal of the wrongfully nominated Chair of the Constitutional Court, cancellation of the ruling, full abortion rights for women and the resignation of the government.

Meanwhile, government officials anonymously admit the complete political failure in passing the ruling during the pandemic, but no public declaration has been made to that effect. The day after Kaczyński’s ominous speech, thousands of women hit the streets again – with the same, if not increased, perseverance.

Earlier on this year, one of the leaders of OSK, Klementyna Suchanow, published a powerful book under the same ominous title, This Is War in which she describes the way ultra-radical right manages to lobby democratic forces to implement laws straight out of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia.

As she argues, if women give in to ideologues now, if they allow them to lobby our governments, the far-right will end up passing legislation to imprison women for miscarriages or remove any medical grounds for abortion, as the previous Ordo Iuris bill did.  It seems that Poland has reached its critical point. Women’s oppression will have to end – now.