“You Will Not Burn Us All”: Polish Protests to Tightening of the Abortion Law

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In Poland abortion is taboo. For over 27 years, a law on abortion was in force that reflected the so-called compromise of allowing for the termination of pregnancy on three occasions: when the pregnancy threatened the life and health of the mother, when it was the result of a criminal act (rape or incest), and when the fetus was damaged or not viable (i.e., the embryopathological premise). The compromise itself placed Poland among the countries with the most draconian abortion laws.

Over the past decade, several attempts have been made to ease the legal restrictions on the termination of pregnancy. The most prominent attempt was the civic abortion bill, prepared by the committee of the legislative initiative Save the Women 2017 (Ratujmy Kobiety 2017).

The bill provided for legal termination of pregnancy up to week 12, sexual education in primary schools, and the availability of emergency contraception without a prescription. However, the “compromise” ultimately remained intact.

Today, Poland is taking a step back. On Thursday, October 22, the Polish Constitutional Court decided that the third condition — the provision allowing termination of pregnancy where “prenatal tests or other medical indications indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible foetal impairment or an incurable life-threatening disease” — is unconstitutional.

Poland froze, if only for a moment, as an avalanche of protests followed, first in Warsaw and then in other Polish cities. The strength of the demonstrations became clear on Friday, after Marta Lempart, the leader of the Polish Women’s Strike, called for the protests to be stepped up.

The Court’s decision came in response to the appeal for a review of the constitutionality of the existing legal provisions, submitted by 119 parliament deputies from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), as well as from smaller parties such as the PSL-Kukiz’15, and the Confederation.

The appeal party, along with anti-abortion activists, used the term “eugenic abortion” to evoke associations that do not correspond to the actual state of affairs, implying that the termination of pregnancy would be intended to abort defective fetuses in order to have perfect children. Put simply, that is not the case.

Although, as the saying goes, hope is the last to die, it was difficult to expect a different verdict from a Constitutional Court dominated by justices appointed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. In practice, the decision means the terrifying prospect of not only having to carry a pregnancy burdened with severe, often life-threatening defects to term, but also condemning the mother to long-term suffering and delayed mourning.

The verdict also takes away the freedom of choice and the right to make decisions about one’s own body. It therefore constitutes an attack on the dignity of women and has already been called “the funeral of women’s rights”. In practice, it further reduces the safety of abortion itself as it makes it legally unavailable in Poland.

It is not that a legal prohibition will end abortion; to the contrary, for many women, it will make it necessary to seek help abroad. Even before the new ruling, Polish women had to resort to abortions performed in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands or Slovakia. Some even chose the least safe option of an underground abortion in Poland.

The Court’s decision has been welcomed by pro-life activists headed by Kaja Godek, who has been calling for a total ban on abortion in Poland. Also, the representatives of the Catholic Church welcomed it with delight, and President Andrzej Duda spoke in a similar spirit.

On the other side, the response to the decision shows the strength of Polish women. It did not take long for the initial reactions to be heard. Immediately after the decision was announced, protesters were already gathering in front of the Constitutional Court.

By about 10 pm, almost a thousand people were headed towards the house of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Hundreds of police officers and police cars were waiting for them, and soon water cannons appeared.

At midnight, the protesters arrived, and half an hour later the police began using tear gas. On the first night, a dozen or so people were arrested and police checked the protesters’ identification documents on the grounds that there were health and safety restrictions in effect prohibiting the organization of large public gatherings during the pandemic.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, being concerned about violations of the ban on maltreatment, violent detentions, and the use of tear gas, intervened on the night of October 22, stressing that the government has a responsibility to respect the right to peaceful public assembly even during a pandemic.

Finally, as news of the decision spread like wildfire on social media, profile photos began to change to red lightning bolts, mouths covered with a hand in the colors of the national flag, images of the handmaid from Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, and so on.

“Disgrace”, “Away from our wombs”, “We will not give up our rights”, “Women’s strength”, “You have blood on your hands”, and “You will not burn us all” are only some of the dozens of slogans that appeared on banners and elsewhere.

The next day the protests only grew stronger. There were over 60 of them on Friday evening alone. Demonstrations were held not only in Kraków, Katowice, Wrocław, Szczecin, and Gdańsk, but also in smaller cities. On Friday evening, crowds marched again to the house of Kaczyński, then to the house of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. According to estimates, no less than 15,000 people took part in this “walk”.

More protests, city blockades and strikes are planned for the coming days. There were protests in churches on Sunday, blockades in the cities were announced for Monday, and a general strike for Wednesday. It is not only indignation at the politically inspired verdict itself, but also an outcry against the increasingly conservative and fundamentalist policies of Law and Justice, which has already been described as “creeping authoritarianism”.

The article is syndicated by 4Liberty.eu Network

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