Next to Ireland and Malta, Poland has one of the harshest laws on abortion in Europe. Although it can be granted up to the 25th week from conception, the pregnancy can only be terminated under three circumstances: when the mother's health is in jeopardy, in criminally proven cases of rape or incest, and when the fetus is malformed. But tensions rose last week when Prime Minister Beata Szydlo supported a campaign proposed by the Polish Catholic Church that calls for a complete ban on abortions, with both doctors and women facing up to five years in prison.
The move sparked an outcry, with protests organized by a newly formed coalition of feminist activists erupting across the country over the weekend. As priests launched their campaign in Catholic churches on Sunday, protesters walked out of one church when the priest read a letter calling for scrapping ofPoland's existing rights. In over 15 cities, thousands of protesters chanted "keep your hands off the uterus" and "my body, my business," as they waved wire coat-hangers, a tool symbolizing the dark world of underground abortions.
"It was amazing to see thousands of people get involved. We've never seen anything like it over the two decades Polish women's groups have organized campaigns against any ban on abortion," protest organiser Karolina Wieckiewicz of Odzyskac Wybor tells Broadly. "Just last month, we had our annual march that's been going for the past few years. Only around 100 people showed up then, but people are now coming together to express their frustration against the current government, who have continued to introduce conservative legislation one after another."
Since it came to power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party has proposed to withdraw from the Istanbul convention, the Council of Europe's convention to prevent and combat domestic violence and violence against women. It has also taken over a national TV channel as part of a move to tighten Poland's media laws. "Given the existing situation for women in Poland, these latest developments make me concerned whether we are going to get any trusted information surrounding our rights as women, including what we are legally allowed to access," says Monika, who attended the protest in northwestern town of Koszalin.
Poland's current laws date back to 1993 following the fall of the Soviet Union, when access to abortion was widely available in USSR countries. Although the end result was widely seen as a compromise between liberals and the Catholic Church, it came with a 'conscience clause' under the Doctor and Dentist Professions Act, allowing medical professionals to refuse abortions if it goes against their personal values and beliefs. While this law requires doctors to refer the women to another medical professional, local rights groups report that this rarely takes place in practice. In 2014, the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA) conducted a report for the UN Human Rights Council that found that women seeking abortion face stigma, intimidation, and misinformation from healthcare providers and clergy.
But the freedoms expected to come with the fall of communism did not bring rights for women. "The Catholic Church were largely seen as an institution that sided with its people during the communist era, as fellow victims who supported the fall of the Soviet Union," explains Wieckiewicz, who also contributed to the FEDERA report as a lawyer. "The public support the Church gained during this period led to their dominance, a power they maintained after the fall of communism. This gave them the opportunity to push their agenda on abortion in 1993."
"Although the Church always saw the current laws as a negotiation of what they wanted, they also put their interests on abortion to one side in 2003 during Poland's referendum on European Union membership," Wieckiewicz adds. "But as the Church supported the membership, they continued to move in accordance with its own interests. Once again they appeared to side with the people, helping the government at the time to secure the 'Yes' vote needed to win."
The elections last October was the first time a political party has been in power with a majority since Poland became a democratic country in 1989. Following the weekend's protests, current Prime Minister Szydlo has backtracked on her comments, saying that the abortion ban is "not an issue in Poland," because the proposal was "not yet a bill." Though she had earlier voiced her support for the ban on public radio, she now claims: "I was speaking in a personal capacity, and I emphasized that these were my personal opinions."
But women have continued to rally, now transferring their frustration from the streets to the digital space by trolling Szydlo online. A dedicated Facebook page has been set up with information about how to call, email, and contact the Prime Minister on social media. "The Polish government want to control our uterus, ovaries, and pregnancies. Isn't it nice that they care so much?" it says. Using the hashtag #TrudnyOkres ("tough period"), women have swarmed to social media and Szydlo's own Facebook page to update her on the status of their menstrual cycles.
Sensing a chance to capitalize on support, left-wing political party Razem has also joined the the grassroots resistance. "Our party believes that having an abortion is a very difficult decision, but a decision that should be made by a pregnant woman and not by a police officer, judge or politician," board member Maciej Baron tells Broadly. "This law isn't 'pro-life,' it is 'anti-woman,' plain and simple… We will continue voicing our opposition and resist any attack on women's rights from the government."
But Wieckiewicz find such political maneuvering intrusive. "It is very unhelpful when political groups get involved just to be seen they're in with the campaign," she says. "It hurts our position as activists.
"Personally, I find it hard to believe that the current government will enforce a law that would affect the health of a woman and expect they will maintain the clause that protects them on these grounds. But there is no such thing as a complete ban; existing laws are already a ban on abortion. We therefore we will continue to fight until our rights are met."