On Wednesday, January 27th, the Polish government passed controversial legislation further tightening their already restrictive abortion laws. Relative to other European nations, Poland’s abortion laws were already prohibitive, tolerated only in cases of rape, incest, foetal abnormalities, and maternal health complications. The government’s ruling follows an earlier revision made by the Constitutional Tribunal in October 2020 that declared the termination of a congenitally defective fetus was unconstitutional. The abortion law was last amended in 1993. The proposed amendment resulted in an extreme public outcry and mass demonstrations, forcing the government to reassess the revised abortion law. Prior to the Courts ruling on that Wednesday, the government had indicated they were open to dialogue. However, the abrupt passing of new legislation has caused extreme division amongst Polish residents. It demonstrates the extreme cultural, moral, and political divide that resides within Poland. The continual nationwide unrest is the largest the country has seen following the fall of communism in 1989.
The ruling Law and Justice party preserve a seemingly outdated socially conservative agenda, repeatedly expressing its distaste for liberal western values and ideologies. Systemically ingrained with Catholicism, the party has placed anti-abortion rhetoric at the forefront of its agenda. Recent polling indicates that less than 15% of the population are in favor of the anti-abortion law.
The near-total ban on abortion rescinds a parents’ right to terminate a congenitally defective fetus. Historically, this being the primary reason for people undergoing the procedure. Of the 1,100 legal abortions recorded in Poland last year, 1,074 were reported as foetal anomalies. Under the revised law an expectant mother will be expected to carry a non-viable pregnancy to full term unless her own life is jeopardized.
With upwards of 400,000 reported protesters taking to the streets, strike leader Marta Lempart encourages others to “please be motivated, so we can walk together, make a mark.” All-Polish Women’s Strike has played a pioneering role in organizing and orchestrating the peaceful protests. According to Marta, the protests represent an array of issues present in Polish democracy. She claims the demonstrations are symbolic, going against a “Patriarchal culture, against a patriarchal state… against a state that treats women really badly.” One protester states the new abortion law treats women like “live incubators.”
As protests continue throughout the country, what began as a peaceful demonstration is quickly turning into a right-sided display of force. In Warsaw, authorities blocked protesters at multiple locations throughout the city. Using COVID-19 regulations as a front, the government deemed the protests illegal, and strongly encouraged demonstrators to ‘stay home’ with police using tear gas and mass broadcasting to disperse the crowds. The show of force has not deterred protesters though. High-school student Zuzia declares, “It’s very important to be here because women’s rights are being trampled.”
The move to erode women of their reproductive rights has not been received favorably. Concerns over the implications the revised law has on international human rights have been expressed worldwide. The Commissioner for Human Rights declared it a “sad day for women’s rights.”
Figures suggest that an estimated 200,000 Polish women were already travelling abroad to obtain ‘illegal’ terminations. The amended abortion law does not prevent abortions but rather fosters an environment that leads to desperation. By stripping away the ability to make reproductive decisions, the Tribunal has effectively rendered women powerless over their bodies. The revised law simultaneously contributes to a greater socio-economic divide, by further marginalizing impoverished communities. Women without means to travel abroad for the procedure are forced to find alternate, illegal, and life-threatening alternatives. It is a fundamental right for women to have access to safe and legal medical care.
It is unclear whether the government will respond to the protests; however, what is clear is that the European Union’s response to Poland’s human rights infringements will set the precedent for all member states. Poland’s decision to all but eradicate abortions from its health-care system directly contradicts many of the countries international agreements. In the meantime, pro-choice organizations, such as Abortion without Borders, have decreed their continual and longstanding support for Polish Women. Regardless of the law, they will continue to offer both financial and mental support to women seeking abortions.