“Women’s Hell”: Half A Million Polish Women Protest Near-Total Abortion Ban

A crowd of protestors in Gdańsk. One holds a sign reading, "I wish I could abort my government."


Hundreds of thousands of women have taken to the streets to protest a court decision that tightens abortion laws in Poland, resulting in the most massive demonstration since the anti-Communism protests in the 1980s. On October 22nd, the Polish tribunal court ruled that abortion in the case of severe fetal abnormality is unconstitutional. The tribunal’s president, Julia Przylebska, argued that because the Polish Constitution guarantees the protection of human life, these so-called “eugenic abortions” are a “directly forbidden form of discrimination.” While the ruling will not take effect until the opinion is officially published, the decisions of Poland’s top courts’ cannot be appealed.


Before this new decision, Poland’s abortion laws were already some of Europe’s strictest. Poland legalized abortion in 1956, and it has been widely used as a form of birth control due to a lack of access to contraceptives. Following the fall of Communism in the country, the Catholic Church began to exert a more significant influence in public life. In February 1993, the Act on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus, and Conditions for Pregnancy Termination was passed, which permitted abortion only in cases of fetal abnormalities, a risk to the mother’s health, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. In 2016, the Law and Justice Party attempted to ban abortion in all cases except where a mother’s life was in danger. In January 2020, they rejected a popular bill to increase access to abortion, provided free and accessible contraception, offered emergency contraception without a prescription, and incorporated comprehensive sex education in school.


Polish women have already been struggling to access legal abortion. Doctors can refuse to perform abortions or prescribe contraception on religious grounds, and online orders of pills for medical abortions often get held up at the border. Only around 1,100 legal abortions are performed in Polish hospitals annually, but reproductive health organizations estimate that the number of illegal abortions obtained is anywhere from 10 to 100 times higher. Women may try to induce abortions on their own, with potentially fatal consequences, or go abroad to countries where abortion is more accessible. Dr. Janusz Rudzinski, a Polish doctor, practicing in Germany, estimates that he sees around twenty Polish women a week. Near-total bans on abortion will have the most profound effect on poor women, as travelling outside the country to access an abortion may not be financially viable for them. These women have no choice but to either carry an inviable pregnancy to term or try to self-abort.


Although the ban is yet to be implemented, some hospitals have begun turning away women with pre-existing appointments. These women are being left to shoulder their burden unsupported, with no information about possible next steps. Organizations such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning report an increase in phone calls requesting support and assistance. A report by the Health Ministry found that 98% of all legal abortions obtained in Poland in 2019 were due to fetal abnormalities. While terminating a pregnancy will still be permitted in the case of violation or threat to the mother’s life, abortion as a whole will effectively be banned. 


It is worth noting that a 2013 United Nations report on torture read, “The Committee against Torture has repeatedly expressed concerns about restrictions on access to abortion and about absolute bans on abortion as violating the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.” Over the past week, the ruling sparked nationwide protests, with over 430,000 people participating in a women’s strike in Warsaw and other Polish cities last Wednesday, October 28th. Some of the women dressed in clothing from the Handmaid’s Tale, blocked streets, interrupted Mass and marched on Parliament shouting anti-government slogans. Protests have been held in cities around the world in solidarity, and the hashtag #PiekloKobiet, or “Women’s Hell,” has trended on Twitter.


Protesters have continued taking to the streets en masse, despite health orders banning gatherings of more than five people due to extensive outbreaks of COVID-19. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on citizens to cease protesting so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, but protesters feel the Law and Justice Party has an ulterior motive. The government has been accused of pushing the decision through while the health orders are in place to discourage protests and have forced the ruling to take attention away from the party’s ineffectual handling of the pandemic.The majority of protests have been peaceful, although some churches have been reportedly vandalized. In response, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski released a statement portraying protesters as enemies of the country, calling on nationalists to “defend the churches.” Right-wing extremists have formed vigilante groups outside of churches and are reportedly responding to protesters with violence.


In an opinion poll conducted by Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s largest newspapers, 59% of respondents were against the new law. Women criticize the Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015, over forcing a return to “traditional values” and relegating women solely to the role of mother. Two-time Olympic medalist Justyna Kowalczyk-Tekieli stated, “Polish women are diminished to the role of incubators. I do not know how one could condemn a woman to give birth to a dead fetus.” In contrast, the tribunal ruled that “[women] cannot kill a conceived child just because its birth would reduce the comfort of a woman’s life.” No mention was made of the toll it would take on expecting mothers to force them to deliver a baby, only to watch it die.


As of November 3rd, the Polish government has delayed implementing the abortion ban due to the widespread protests. While this is good news, it remains concerning that the Law and Justice Party are continuously putting forth decisions that limit a woman’s control over her reproductive health. Due to the national outcry in response to anti-choice bills proposed in 2016 and 2020, it is clear that public opinion favours increasing access to abortion. That the government instead continues to prioritize the influence of the Catholic Church is concerning and undemocratic.


Furthermore, the continuous attacks on women’s reproductive rights, both in Poland and elsewhere, illustrate a backlash to advancements made by women in recent decades – even if those attacks fail. International communities should continue to exert pressure on Poland and other countries that limit abortion while emphasizing the importance of empowering women to make decisions about their bodies and health without government input. Women are experts in their own lives and must be treated as such.

Kailey Ouellette


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