Protests Continue In Poland Following Effective Ban On Legal Abortions

The Polish government has delayed the implementation of a recent court decision that would effectively ban abortion, following two weeks of widespread protesting. On October 22nd, the nation’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that aborting fetuses with congenital defects should be illegal, even in cases of irreversible birth defects.

Since the ruling, protests have been held every day nationwide. Hundreds of thousands, primarily women and young people, have participated in the largest demonstrations in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Coordinated at least in part by Strajk Kobiet, Women’s Strike, people took to the streets peacefully carrying signs calling for abortion rights. Protests were held in solidarity, outside Polish embassies and consulates across Europe. A joint statement, signed by multiple international organizations, including the Global Justice Centre and the Centre for Reproductive Rights, condemned the restriction of access to women’s health care, and called for support for protestors. However, the protests in Poland additionally represent wider discontent with the right-wing government.

Although the ruling was initially supposed to be implemented on November 2nd, due to public outcry it has not yet been entered into legal force. Klementyna Suchanow, the co-founder and leader of Women’s Strike, called into question the legal status and the legitimacy of the court, claiming that the “ruling by the so-called Constitutional Tribunal must be withdrawn.”

The Polish government has been criticized by the European Union, accused of controlling the judiciary. Fourteen of the fifteen judges sitting on the court were appointed by the Law and Justice party. In power since 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has been criticized for bypassing Parliament in order to pass an abortion ban. The court case was the result of a legal challenge, launched by MPs from the PiS. The ban was condemned by rights groups. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights claimed, “it was a sad day for women’s rights.” On November 3rd, in response to protests and criticism, the government delayed the publication of the ruling indefinitely. However, the government could still publish the verdict at any time, despite legal experts claiming that would violate the Constitution. Marta Lempart, a lawyer and Women’s Strike leader indicates that the protests are symbolic of “a whole backlash against a patriarchal culture, against a patriarchal state, against the fundamentalist religious state, against the state that treats women really badly.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda attempted to appeal to protestors. A close ally of PiS, the president proposed a bill that would reinstate the right to abortion in cases of congenital defects. However, the proposal was inherently restrictive, only permitting access to the procedure in cases of fatal abnormalities. It is important to recognize that there is currently a lack of institutional support for disabled children in Poland.

Polls suggest support for President Duda and the PiS have dropped since the protests started. Further, barely 15% of the population support the proposed ban. The PiS party leader and deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had repeatedly promised to limit access to legal abortions, perceived as an attempt to bolster support from the traditionalist right. The nation’s powerful Catholic church was in favour of the ban, which resulted in churches being defaced. Kaczynski called on the party’s supporters to “defend patriotism” and “defend Polish churches” in response to demonstrations. Although the protests have been primarily peaceful, they have encountered far-right groups armed with pepper spray and flares.

Poland’s preexisting abortion laws were already the most restrictive in Europe, only permitted when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, threatened the life of the mother, or should the fetus develop an abnormality. It is necessary to note that, in practice, the overwhelming majority of abortions performed in Poland last year were due to fetal abnormalities. In fact, all but about 30 of the 1,110 legal abortions performed in Poland were the result of birth defects. However, it is necessary to note that PiS has already twice attempted to prohibit the procedure. In 2016 and 2018 respectively, the party moved in Parliament to impose a ban on abortion. Public outcry followed both instances, particularly in 2016, as Polish women wore black and carried black umbrellas through the streets, to represent mourning. Many of the contemporary demonstrators carry umbrellas, which serve as symbols of mobilization and the fight for reproductive rights.

According to Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, efforts have intensified to obtain a legal abortion since the court’s ruling. However, laws banning legal abortion do not stop women from seeking it. Already approximately 200,000 Polish women have illegal abortions, or go abroad to have the procedure each year. The protests represent a broader anger at the PiS over the erosion of democracy, and even discontent with the handling of the pandemic. Protestors continue to take to the streets, wearing masks, to advocate for reproductive rights, despite increasing threats from the right and the police.