For fourteen nights after the High Court’s ruling, Poles have been marching on the streets to protest against the new abortion law, making terminations due to fetus abnormalities unconstitutional. Poland has then decided to delay the abortion ban in the face of the mounting protests, while Polish women are getting backed by the European leaders. But what seem to be the stakes of this “backlash against a patriarchal culture“?
On the 22nd of October, the High Court of Poland, consisting of 15 judges controlled by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), tightened what was already one of Europe’s most repressive abortion laws. As the law stands, abortions for fetal anomalies violate the Polish Constitution.
Abortions in case of severe fetus abnormalities constituted 98% of legal terminations last year; yet, 200,000 Polish women had abortions either illegally or abroad each year. The new statute allows Poles to abort their children only in the instance of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger. Although it hardly means that the new law is enforceable: the abortions would be most likely carried out at the cost of worse conditions and higher prices, disproportionally affecting the most underprivileged Polish families.
Enraged by the statute, Poles went out on the streets, staging the most widespread protests Poland has seen since the fall of Communism in 1989. Defying the ban on demonstrations, for 14 nights following the ruling, Poles have been marching on the streets of big cities, carrying I wish I could abort my government banners. The mass demonstrations, led by All-Polish Women’s Strike (OSK), exposed much more than just a popular social discontent.
The new abortion law has been baptized as a trigger point. People on the streets were chanting: This is War! not without reason: much more than just abortion rights are at stake in Poland shaped by the PiS narrative. Having called it a revolution, Marta Lempart – one of OSK’s leaders – implied that this is not the only reason that has enraged the society and the consequences emerging from the social discontent will be countless. This battle is equally fought for women’s reproductive rights as it is for the economic, social, and political freedoms of all the marginalized in Poland governed by PiS.
These are the patriarchal culture and steady erosion of democratic norms practiced by PiS that underlie observed social frustration, finding its outlet in the mass demonstrations. The politicization of the judiciary, the oppression of the LGBTQ community, and the fundamentalist religiosity – all these have been challenged by the protesters, whether it be by defacing churches or disrupting public services. The strikes are, therefore, by no means decontextualized: Poles are gathering together to protest for their democratic freedoms that – owing to the decisions of unconstitutional and far-from-democratic institutions – are being gradually taken away.
The court ruling is interpreted by many as a tactical move of a PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, to solicit support on the traditionalist right, simultaneously bypassing the Parliament, where PiS has a razor-thin majority. In turn, unexpected for the leadership has appeared to be the extent of popular fury, unlike any PiS has ever seen. As many analysts anticipate, in the short-term social unrest could have been mitigated by playing along with the demands of protesters or slightly deradicalizing the proposed statutes in the response for the strikes. Yet, expeditiously growing discontent might shake the nationalist core of PiS in the long-time perspective, handicapping future decision-making.
The response of the influential decision-makers only fanned up the situation. While addressing the strikes, Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the protesters the criminals. In his public speech, PM asked people to protect the country, which was interpreted by many as permission for violence. Similarly, the Minister of Education, Przemysław Czarnek, threatened institutions, teachers, and professors who support the protests. In effect, many students who have propagated pro-strike behaviors were threatened to be suspended by the teachers calling them vandals and terrorists. Meanwhile, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Michał Woś, promised a harsh treatment of the marches’ organizers, threatening them with up to 8 years in prison for exposing themselves and others to harm.
Although only 15% of Poles admitted to be in favor of the proposed law, the PiS supporters seem to act in line with the leaders. During one of the demonstrations, the driver of a car ran into two protesters. As it turned out, he is an employee of the Internal Security Agency (ABW). Consequently, willing to charge the ABW officer with a criminal charge, the district prosecutor ruling the case was dismissed from the investigation. In turn, the aggressor was held responsible for a mere driving violation – the Polish women have been deprived of the guarantee of security by the services most authorized to provide them.
Yet, the Polish reproductive rights crisis seems to echo loudly across the European countries. The Polish parliamentarians and MPs were speaking up on the international arena, increasing social awareness. Effectively, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Iceland have become the first countries willing to implement changes in their laws in order to allow Polish women to legally terminate their pregnancies in these countries. For instance, an Icelandic deputy, Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir, supported by 18 other politicians, has just submitted a draft resolution to the Icelandic parliament, allowing people who have lost the right to legal abortion within their own country, the ability to take advantage of free abortion in Iceland. That procedure would be free for Polish women, requiring only an EHIC card. Similarly, in the Czech Republic, a spot well-known in Poland for their abortion practices, Czech Pirate Party appealed to the Czech government to provide Polish women with the possibility of legal abortion in the country.
In response to the international criticism and domestic protests, the Polish government prevented the court’s decision from coming into play by indefinitely postponing its publication. No protesting Pole, however, considers it good news, but rather a simple practice of buying time – time for the new law to be taken down from the headlines of every newspaper both in the country and abroad. Additional time might be also necessary for the government to take any safety measures, plan strategies, and organize the country before the imposition of a national state of emergency due to COVID-19. With that lay of the land, people’s hands would be tied: if on the streets, every protestant would be arrested right away.
Although with the announcement of the President, Andrzej Duda, about the probable alteration in the law, scores of Poles breathed a sigh of relief, many forgot that it was a mere PR effort, as pointed out by the political analysts. As a regular puppet in the hands of Kaczyński, Duda has no real decision-making power that would bring a real difference to the Polish social landscape. As long as the ruling is not entirely dismissed, Polish women will have to roll up their sleeves.