Unwanted Unrest: Poland’s Internal Pandemic

Unmoved by the commotion of a global pandemic, the Polish government is continuing to work and vote on a regressive legislation that would restrict sexual and reproductive health rights, as well as putting the lives of women and adolescents at risk. Poland’s parliament voted on Thursday 16th April 2020 to not rule out a law that compares homosexuals to paedophiles. Equally, there is an existing code to criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” Organizations, as well as general public figures who offer sexual education or information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including teachers, outreach workers, authors, and health care personnel, fear the bill could enforce a prison sentence of up to three years – all in the name of them simply doing their jobs.

Additionally, discussions in parliament have also focused on hardening existing abortion laws. Currently, abortion may only be granted in Poland in cases of rape, incest or if the health of the baby or mother is compromised. Poland already has some of the strictest legislation in Europe on abortion, and previous attempts to tighten the laws further were abandoned after mass protests in 2016. The proposal comes from a citizen initiative, and it is unclear if the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party will support it, but President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, has said he would sign the law if it “reaches his desk” which leaves a bleak aftertaste in the mouths of the Polish people.

There is great fear within the opposition, as they are largely concerned that the government will exploit the public’s distraction with COVID-19 to pass legislation that does not reflect the views and safety for those that it claims to represent. “For them, this is the best time to pay the debts they have to ultra-conservative groups,” said Barbara Nowacka, an opposition MP who was active in the protests four years ago. The current global state has forced the Polish population to react in protest both in person and virtually in order to exhibit a message to their governing body. Earlier this week, dozens of women protested in central Warsaw. They were seen in cars and on bicycles, honking horns and displaying posters against the law. Police used megaphones to warn protesters they risked fines for breaking lockdown regulations. Other human rights groups resorted to online protests. Campaigners have launched a “lockdown virtual demonstrations” under the hashtag #ProtestAtHome. Thousands of activists posting selfies online, some even standing in front of the Polish Parliament to show that their message is targeted at Polish MPs. “Attempting to pass these recklessly retrogressive laws at any time would be shameful, but to rush them through under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis is unconscionable,” said Draginja Nadazdin, Director of Amnesty International Poland. “These laws would fuel fear and ignorance, and further restrict access to abortion for women in a country whose abortion law is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.” He went on to add, “the voices of the thousands who took part in creative protests this week may have been muffled by face masks, but their message was nonetheless heard loud and clear.”

President Duda is up for re-election next month, a vote the government is controversially insisting will go ahead, despite the restrictions in place due to the pandemic. PiS has courted a conservative, Catholic voter base with right-wing rhetoric against abortion rights, LGBT rights and so-called “gender ideology”. Natalia Broniarczyk, of the Abortion Dream Team organization, said that even without the new legislation, COVID-19 has made life harder for women seeking abortion. The organisation’s helpline has received around 550 calls in the month since lockdown was imposed in Poland, which is twice as much as during a usual month. These figures can only act as reflective evidence towards the government’s ignorance to accept the reality of its people.

The anxiety and the chaos surrounding COVID-19 should not be used as a driving tool for the government to exploit harmful legislation that severely impacts the lives of their people. As noted by senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch Hillary Margolis; “Undermining access to abortion and comprehensive sexuality education doesn’t protect anyone, and only raises the prospect of dire health consequences for Poland’s people.” Trying times as these are, and in a country where sexual and reproductive rights are already extremely limited, education about sexuality is crucial to help young people make decisions about things such as consent, contraception and prevention of sexuality transmitted infections.

Ruth Foran