Polish pro-choice protesters were preparing to mount a mass demonstration outside the home of the country’s most powerful politician Friday, as outrage rises over a court ruling imposing an almost total ban on abortions.
The ruling from the country’s top court Thursday – that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional – has outlawed the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in the staunchly Catholic country.
Following the ruling, abortion will only be legal in instances of incest, rape or to protect the mother’s life – categories which make up only about 2 percent of abortions performed in Poland in recent years. Alongside Malta, Poland's abortion laws were already among the most draconian in Europe, resulting in an estimated 100,000 women travelling overseas to get terminations each year.
The assault on reproductive rights provoked fiery protests Thursday night in front of the home of Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who as head of the ruling Law and Justice Party is considered the country’s de facto leader. Riot police fired tear gas and arrested 15 people amid clashes with protesters, who yelled “Keep away from my ovaries” and carried signs that read: “Torture.”
Aleksandra, a 26-year old film producer from Warsaw who did not want her surname used, said Thursday’s ruling had a visceral impact on her friends, compelling them to take to the streets Thursday night.
“Everyone was devastated and everyone was crying,” she told VICE News. “This was the first time in my life, and in the lives of my friends, that the Polish government treated us like we didn’t exist.”
Further protests are planned for cities across Poland on Friday and throughout the weekend, including a “funeral for women’s rights” in Lodz. Maja Rzeczycka, a 27-year-old mother and manager from Warsaw, said she was planning to protest alongside her friends, despite fears of a brutal response from police and concerns about resurgent coronavirus.
“We are preparing for the gas, but it seems very odd to me that we have to be worried about this kind of danger from the side of someone who lives off my taxes,” she told VICE News.
“Every country should treat women like they have a choice about their own body,” Rzeczycka continued. “It’s a trauma to give birth to a child that is deformed or doesn’t have the ability to live.”
Rights advocates have slammed the court’s ruling as a retrogressive measure that will harm women.
"Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights," Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, wrote on Twitter, describing it as a “sad day for women’s rights”.
Esther Major, senior research adviser at Amnesty International, said the ruling was the result of a coordinated systematic wave of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish lawmakers under the conservative Law and Justice government, which has long sought to curb access to abortion.
She said prohibitions on abortion didn’t reduce the rates of terminations: “They serve only to damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need, and to which they have a right.”
Despite the public anger over the court’s ruling – which reflects polling that indicates a majority of Poles are opposed to tighter abortion laws – experts say the protests are almost certain to be in vain.
Mikolaj Czerwinski, Amnesty’s Poland-based equal treatment coordinator, told VICE News that the ruling would take effect in law as soon as it was published by the prime minister.
“The… ruling party has a history of not publishing verdicts when they are not in line with what they want, but this is not the case here,” he said. “There is not much that can be done here.”
Nevertheless, Kasia, a 29-year-old who didn’t want her full name used, said that she still planned to protest in Warsaw Friday, “even though I know that nothing will stop this government”.
“I am ashamed of how this portrays Poland on a global scale,” she told VICE News. “I am slowly starting to feel unsafe here, so I will fight for our rights with other women.”