In Europe, Thousands of People Hit the Streets to Support Reproductive Rights

Reproductive rights are being threatened across Europe, in places like Poland and Northern Ireland. On Saturday, protests took place in cities across the continent to fight for safe and legal access to abortion.

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Apr 11 2016, 1:05pm

All photos by Steph Wilson

This weekend, protests erupted across Europe in response to anti-abortion developments in Northern Ireland and Poland, with activists worrying that the latest stories out of both countries indicate an ever-increasing assault on women's reproductive freedom.

In Northern Ireland, hundreds of people gathered outside the Belfast Public Prosecution Service to protest the recent sentencing of a 21-year-old woman for self-administering an abortion with pills she bought online. It was part of a chain of protests taking place across the UK in at least six other cities, including London, Liverpool, and Glasgow.

In London, a group of around 20 protesters from pro-choice campaign Abortion Rights gathered outside the drab gray exterior of the West End Central Police Station in an attempt to "hand themselves in" to police for having had abortions.

"It's about that symbolic solidarity with women in Northern Ireland," said Kelley Temple, the secretary of the organization. "We think it's unacceptable; if you're going to arrest women for their right to safe and legal abortion, then you need to arrest us all."

The case of the Northern Irish woman—who has not been named—has sparked widespread anger over abortion access in the UK. Though the Abortion Act 1967 made the procedure available to women in England, Scotland, and Wales, the same rules do not apply to Northern Ireland, where women can only access a termination if their life or health is at risk.

"We're in the same country, but because the Abortion Act has never been extended to Northern Ireland it means that one set of women—women who pay the same taxes—are being criminalized and jailed for accessing reproductive healthcare through abortion, and one set of women aren't," said Temple. "Women's rights should be the same across the UK, regardless of where you live."

Read More: Looking Back on a Horrendous Year for Abortion Rights

"I grew up in Ireland, and I had an abortion about two years ago," Eva O'Connor, a writer and performer who attended the police protest, told Broadly. "I think it's the most pressing issue in Ireland right now. We've got a government that's full of middle-aged men. If men needed abortions, you could probably get one at an ATM."

A protester outside the West End Central Police Station.

Northern Ireland is not the only place in Europe facing protests over its record on abortion rights. In Poland, thousands of people have been demonstrating against a proposed ban on abortion that would also see IUDs and the morning-after pill outlawed as "early abortion tools." Abortion in Poland is legal only if the woman's life or health is at risk, and in cases of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormality. Last week, bishops in the Polish Catholic Church called to ban abortion completely, and are supporting a civic group's proposals to draft legislation tightening abortion access.

Back in London, officers at the West End Central Police Station stayed in the building and didn't bring out the handcuffs for any of the women protesting that day. The group hurried past crowds of shoppers on Regent Street to join another pro-choice protest a short 15 minutes down the road.

Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland does not have the same laws on abortion.

Outside the Polish Embassy, over 300 people had gathered with banners reading "Dead Women Can't Have Babies" and "Support for Polish Women." Campaigners with boxes handed out coat hangers, which have emerged as the unoffficial symbol of the Polish protests—a terrifying reminder of the fate awaiting women if they are forced to turn to underground abortions. Protests also took place on Saturday in Warsaw and other big Polish cities, drawing thousands of people for the second time in less than two weeks.

Aleksandra Wołek, one of the organizers of the London embassy protest and a member of the Polish left-wing political party Razem, told Broadly that she believes that the right to abortion is being threatened across Europe.

Protesters outside the Polish Embassy in London.

"I think there is a collective trend of a general assault on women's reproductive rights," she said. "Polish women's rights are being assaulted; in Northern Ireland we had the case of the woman getting a suspended sentence for abortion. We feel like this is something not necessarily specific to one country, and this is why we should build a movement that addresses it."

As protesters chanted "my body, my choice" and "keep your rosaries off my ovaries," Joanna Cielecka, a spokesperson from pro-choice group Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, told the assembled rally: "If you're hearing this and you're not angry... Don't waste our time! We are free to decide, and we will endure!"

Signs and coat hangers were left outside the Polish embassy.

"It makes me infuriated," Cielecka told Broadly after her speech, as the protesters gathered around the embassy to hang clothes hangers off its doors. "I'm shaking with anger. It affects millions of us. It is a very common situation to find yourself in because there is no good access to contraception. It happened to my sister, my friends, to mothers of my friends—every one of us knows somebody who went through an illegal abortion. It's scary, it's dangerous, and it can leave you unable to have a baby again.

"And," she added, "it's just fucking stupid."

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