‘It’s Hard to Believe What’s Happening’: The Polish Women Fighting a Near-Total Abortion Ban

The country is facing a third-straight night of nationwide protests.
January 29, 2021, 6:27pm
A demonstrator holds up a cloth hanger as she takes part in a pro-choice demonstration in front of the constitutional court in Warsaw, Poland, on January 28, 2021​.
A demonstrator holds up a cloth hanger as she takes part in a pro-choice demonstration in front of the constitutional court in Warsaw, Poland, on January 28, 2021. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Polish pro-choice protesters said they were fired up for a long fight against a new, near-total ban on abortion and uncowed by a government crackdown, as they prepared for another night of nationwide demonstrations Friday.

“What does this verdict mean for me? Firstly, even more pissed off, [with] the desire to go out on the streets every day,” said Patrycja Tomaszewska, a 26-year-old teacher who was on the frontlines of protests in Warsaw Wednesday night. 

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“We do not agree with such a brutal violation of our rights,” she told VICE World News. “And we will fight for our own.”

Poland’s “Women’s Strike” protest movement has been reignited by the conservative government’s sudden move Wednesday to implement a court ruling greatly restricting access to legal termination in Poland, whose abortion laws were already among the strictest in Europe.

The new law bans the termination of pregnancies with severe foetal defects, removing the most common of the few previous grounds for legal abortion in the predominantly Catholic country. As a result, legal terminations will only be available in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s health is in jeopardy.

The controversial ruling was made on the 22nd of October last year by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal — whose bench is dominated by appointees of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party. Such rulings are usually enacted into law by being published in the official gazette within a matter of days.

But the abortion ruling inspired hundreds of thousands of Poles to rise up in a wave of mass, women-led demonstrations on a scale not seen in decades, prompting the government to hold off on enacting the judgment. Some lawmakers even floated the idea of softening the ruling.

It was only shelved temporarily, it turns out. This week, the government unexpectedly enacted the ruling after the Tribunal issued a justification of its judgment, and Poland erupted once more.

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Aga, a 36-year-old from Warsaw who did not want her surname used, was another who joined the protests this week to oppose “another stage of taking away our basic rights to decide for ourselves and our bodies.”

She told VICE World News that the new law was “a shock, in the sense that it’s hard to believe that such things are happening in the EU, in the 21st century.”

The impacts of the new law have been immediate. Thousands of protesters have mobilised in the streets of Polish cities and towns, meeting a brutal crackdown from police. Among those detained Thursday night was writer and activist Klementyna Suchanow, a co-founder of the Women’s Strike protest movement.

At a press conference Friday, Marta Lempart, a fellow co-founder of the movement, said her organisation viewed Suchanow’s arrest as an act of harassment by the government, “that treats her as a person who is an enemy of the state, not as a regular citizen.”

She said she expected further sweeping arrests by the state in a bid to deter protesters from mobilising against the law — an act she anticipated could have a radicalising effect on many young people.

“These young people went from being European citizens with broad horizons and confidence in the future, straight to being victims of unlawful police brutality,” she said.

Meanwhile, family planning groups said they were receiving dozens of panicked calls from women who have had terminations scheduled, as the implementation of the law threw essential medical procedures into disarray. Rights groups warned that the new law would only damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel overseas for terminations.

For Tomaszewska, who took to the frontlines of protests in Warsaw this week, the fight isn’t only about the new, draconian law, but for the future of a country in which many women, liberals, LGBTQ and other groups feel increasingly alienated by their conservative, traditionalist government.

“What will happen next? Bearing children from rape? A ban on contraception and an outright ban on sex education?” she said. “These questions are related to what the ruling means to me — one big, bloody uncertainty that after some time, I will wake up in a country from which I will have to flee in order to live.”