Poland has been known to have one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. In 1993, the country introduced legislation allowing women to terminate pregnancies only in the cases of rape, incest, foetal abnormality, or if there is a danger to the woman’s life.
After 27 years, Poland’s abortion laws are changing again – for worse. On the 22nd October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled abortions due to foetal defects to be unconstitutional, effectively imposing a near-total ban.
After the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the only abortions legal in Poland will occur in the remaining instances of rape and danger to the woman’s life. In 2019, these accounted for only 2% of abortions – it is estimated that 98% of legal abortions were in fact performed because of foetal defects.
What pro-life activists and the ruling party refuse to acknowledge is that while in 2019 only 1110 abortions occurred in Polish hospitals, it is estimated that every year, around 100,000 more abortions take place – those are the abortions performed abroad on Polish residents.
Behind the ban and directing the legislation to the Constitutional Court is Kaja Godek, the face of the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture. What hides behind the sophisticated name is an extreme pro-life organisation. Kaja Godek admits that she is on a mission to end all abortions, with her next move supposedly directed at women who became pregnant due to rape or incest – ‘a baby conceived as a result of rape is also a victim of rape. It has the right to be born’, argues Godek.
For Polish women, the ban on abortions might be the last straw in terms of their reproductive rights. Since their success in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the conservative PiS government has pursued policy within the comfortabilities of the Church, ensuring restrictions on sexual and reproductive freedoms. Alongside restricting abortions, the government are limiting access to contraception, preventing sex education, and refusing to finance infertility treatment.
Pro-choice protesters have not left the streets since the ruling was announced. The recent protest in Warsaw was the biggest protest against the Polish government to date, with about one hundred thousand people attending, despite the pandemic. The signs and slogans are unapologetic. They read: “THIS IS WAR”, “F**CK OFF”, “GET THE F**CK OUT”, as well as the cryptic “***** ***”, meaning “F*ck PiS”. Those against the abortion ban have been trying to have a peaceful debate since the first wave of the protests took place in 2016; now they are clear – they have had enough.
Anti-government action of this scale has been a long time coming given the anti-democratic manoeuvres made by PiS in recent years. The independence of the Constitutional Court that ruled abortions practically illegal is questionable, with PiS making seemingly political appointments. Since their election in 2015, PiS have removed five of the previously appointed judges and replaced them with conservative judges with an affiliation to them. Ironically, this makes the Constitutional Court unconstitutional in itself – it breaches the separation of powers, established in the first chapter of the Polish constitution.
The Catholic Church exercises considerable clout in political affairs in Poland, despite the country being formally secular. The Catholic Church and the ruling party are closely linked – priests and bishops offer endorsements, urging churchgoers to vote for PiS, while the government pursues a socially conservative policy agenda. A central part of the ongoing protests has been to interrupt Sunday mass; the term “apostasy”, meaning disaffiliation from religion, has seen a rapid increase in Google searches in Poland since the ruling was announced. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the PiS party had a simple response – ‘defend churches at all cost’.
The Polish police have seemingly taken on Kaczynski’s advice, not reluctant to use violence and pepper spray to keep protesters back. Arrested activists have been assaulted and in cases refused medication. Meanwhile, Polish neofascist groups are also on the hunt for protesters, carrying baseball bats, throwing stones and targeting the most vulnerable.
Universities may also face repercussions due to strike action. Many professors and students are actively involved in the protests, but the schools that allowed them to take part without consequence have already been addressed by the newly appointed Polish Minister of Education, Przemyslaw Czarnek. The openly sexist and homophobic Minister suggested that Universities that cancelled classes on the days of the protests (in a legal manner termed ‘rector hours’ which can be announced in any special circumstances) could lose a share of government funding.
Women’s rights organisations who are leading the protests say that they will not be leaving the streets until the legislation changes and women get full reproductive rights in Poland. Sadly, this scenario seems unlikely under the current government. Jaroslaw Kaczynski does not take any pro-choice arguments into consideration, regarding the protests as an ‘attack aimed at destroying Poland’.
The next general elections will take place in 2023. There is a chance that the anti-abortion legislation may hamper the ruling party’s chances of re-election. But, given the pro-government bias of the state-run media outlet, Polish National Television (TVP), the ruling party have an evident advantage. ‘Leftist Fascism Destroys Poland’, and ‘The Opposition Wants Anarchy because of Lost Elections’ are just some of the headlines featured on the channel.
As the size of the protests on Polish streets grew, the Council of Europe described the anti-abortion ruling as ‘a sad day for women’s rights’. Multiple countries, including Norway and Sweden, are considering providing free abortions for Polish women. In Poland, more organisations emerge to help women in accessing safe abortions.
The biggest organisation dedicated to helping Polish women in need of abortions is Aborcja Bez Granic (Abortion Without Borders). If you are in Poland and in need of an abortion, you can reach them at +48 22 29 22 597.