Beyond The Abortion Rights: Mass Polish Women Protest Reflecting Backlash Against Conservative Ruling

Thousands of women, led by the grassroots women’s movement Ogolnopolski Straijk Kobiet, marched across major Polish cities and towns for a peaceful nationwide strike against a court ruling that imposed a near-total ban on abortion. Despite the soaring new coronavirus cases, many protesters held anti-government slogans, blocked roads and chanted “This is a war!” and “I wish I could abort my government.” As protests continue, the threat of violence has loomed larger with right-wing extremists engaged in the fight. Based on The New York Times Report, “right-wing extremists had seized on the protests and formed vigilante groups outside of churches, leading to clashes and small brawls with protesters.” 

The size of the protest has been seen as unprecedented, one of the largest in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989. Massive demonstrators confronted the priests and devastated church facades. The action has reflected an irritation with the omnipotence of the Catholic Church, as the church’s doctrine has had a strong influence on the Polish government’s beliefs about conception, contraception and abortion. However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the deputy prime minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, sees those in opposition as “criminals” who seek to “destroy the Polish nation” and he urges his supporters to “defend Poland, defend patriotism and polish churches.” The majority of Poles, however, perceived the court ruling as a strategy used by Kaczynski to reinforce support on the traditionalist conservatism while bypassing the parliament, where the ruling coalition has barely a slim majority. 

The discontent has intensified and was the result of several attempts from the Polish government to constrict what was already the most restrictive abortion law in Europe. Based on the IBRiS Pollster it has been revealed that approximately 66 percent of respondents object to the verdict, while another 69 percent prefer a referendum on whether change should be implemented. However, Polish chief of tribunal, Julia Przylebska, said permitting abortion for fetal malformation was akin to legalising eugenic practices, and is incompatible with the constitution. Poland’s constitution ensures the protection of human rights and abortion based on the fetus’ health is a “directly forbidden form of discrimination.” 

Existing restrictive abortion law was adopted in 1993 as part of a hard-fought negotiation aimed at sidestepping criticisms just four years after the fall of communism, when there was unfettered access to abortion. This legislation only permits abortion in case of rape,  incest, or when women’s lives are at risk. In practice, 1,074 of 1,100 of most legal abortions performed in the country last year resulted from fetal abnormalities. Opponents to the proposal asserted it threatens women’s lives by compelling them to carry unviable pregnancies. A rights activist, Natalia Zwirek also claimed, “I can’t stand that they continue to limit our freedom. They expect us to accept inhumane suffering and they don’t care what we feel. They are treating us as childbearing machines.”

The widespread outcry over the past two weeks in Poland reflected an increasing frustration with the right-wing government, as they witnessed the steady erosion of democracy and a hard-won freedom. Since 2015, the PiS has proposed various judicial reforms to address corruption. However many critics, including the European judicial bodies, said the Law and Justice party has largely chipped away at the independence of the judiciary and used the court to achieve what it could not do legally. According to Marcin Matczak, “The court’s decision on abortion would not be possible without the previous assault on the rule of law.” 

Poland’s attempts to eliminate women’s access to abortion is seen as a grave violation on human rights which has drawn backlashes against mistreatment of women. It is unlawful to stamp out women’s reproductive rights and especially their freedom to make decisions about their own bodies. Thus, the international communities, European Commission On Human Rights and relevant organizations should work together to call for liberalization of the abortion law to safeguard women’s rights as well as democracy in Poland.