Protests erupted in Poland early last month following a ruling which further bans abortion within the country. Already some of the strictest in Europe, Poland’s abortion laws allowed only three justifications for legal abortions: a woman is allowed to legally abort in the case of fetal abnormalities, a threat to their health, or incest/rape. However, the Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that terminating pregnancies due to fetal abnormalities and birth defects violates Poland’s Constitution. The fetal abnormalities/birth defects condition accounts for 1,074 of the 1,100 legal abortions performed in the country last year.
Poland’s response to this ruling was swift and cold. People came out in droves to protest, despite the pandemic, with more than 100,000 people gathering in Warsaw on the evening of November 6th. Thousands marched the streets, holding banners reading things like “I wish I could abort my government,” “this is war,” and “I think, I feel, I decide.” These demonstrations continued for weeks, and are some of the most intense the country has seen since the collapse of communism in 1989.
The protests have largely been led by the grassroots women’s movement Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (OSK, or All-Polish Women’s Strike), and the areas in which they demand change go far beyond abortion rights. Protestors are calling for further separation between church and state, as well as broader and stronger progress in protecting women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. However, as the country’s unrest rages on, Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the leading Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), has called upon his conservative followers to “defend Poland, [and] defend patriotism.” Following protestors staging a sit-in at some Catholic churches and interrupting Sunday Mass, Chairman Kaczyński also urged conservatives to “defend Polish churches.” This was a deliberate choice of words in a country where the Roman Catholic church still holds great influence. Some consider the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to be a deliberate move by Kaczyński in an effort to maintain support of the church as criticism continues to circulate over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the massive and ongoing protests, Poland’s government has delayed the implementation of the court ruling, instead offering a proposal to Parliament in an attempt to ease the ruling’s restrictions. The proposal allows abnormal fetuses to be aborted, but only those whose abnormalities are deadly. Abortion of fetuses with other conditions, like Down Syndrome, is still banned.
According to analysts, however, the proposal has little chance of receiving adequate backing from lawmakers in Parliament, as it fails to address or satisfy the demands of either side in the debate.
A session of Parliament due to discuss and debate the proposal of the President on November 11th was postponed to mid-November – due to the pandemic, the PiS claims. However, Barbara Nowacka, a member of the opposition, has suggested that the delay was due to fear of the protests and public outcry.
Delaying can only help for so long. Eventually, President Andrzej Duda will need to face the music and consider options to address the protestors’ demands. Polls have shown that support for both the governing PiS party and the president have dropped significantly since the protests began. Support for the PiS has plummeted by almost 10 points to 30.9% in a single month, according to one poll, while another poll shows that 70% of Poles would like Kaczyński to step down as leader of the PiS party.
Two important questions lie at the center of this clash: does the government have the right to decide what women do with their bodies or not? And what impact should religious bodies, especially the church, have on rules within the state? Many major countries have seemingly answered these questions, but doubts remain lingering in the background. We must question the fairness of forcing those who do not subscribe to the same religious thoughts to abide by the rules of one religion. We must also consider the extent to which the government’s power should include our bodies.
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