“The fight for abortion has been the struggle of Polish women for generations”

Last week’s ruling in the Constitutional Court placing further restrictions on abortion access in Poland sent a shockwave through society and brought tens of thousands on to the streets in protest

October 30, 2020 by Zoe Alexandra
Protests have erupted across Poland in rejection of the constitutional court's ruling to further restrict abortion. Photo: OKO.press

For the past week, people in towns and cities across Poland have been on the streets to protest a ruling issued on Thursday, October 22 by the country’s constitutional court which banned abortions in cases of fetal defects. The ruling modified the 1993 law on abortion which states that pregnancy termination is only permitted in cases of rape and incest, in cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to the women’s health and in case of fetal defects.

Even before Thursday’s ruling, Poland had one of the strictest legislations on abortion access in the region. This forces between 100,000 -150,000 women to travel abroad every year for the procedure. The court’s decision further limited access to this fundamental reproductive right.

The ruling has been met with widespread opposition from broad sectors of society. Feminist groups, left wing parties, football fans and concerned citizens have protested night after night outside the courts, parliament, churches and key buildings of the far-right Law & Justice (PiS) party. Left parties, including Razem of the Lewica coalition, have proposed a bill in the Polish parliament calling for the decriminalization of abortion.

“People are enraged,” Zofia Malisz a member of Razem told Peoples Dispatch. She said that they are “fed up with the influence of the Catholic church in our lives, particularly our personal lives.”

Frustration with the PiS government had been growing over the past months and years, Malisz said, but “the reproductive rights ruling was the straw that broke the camel’s back because it was a very shocking and brazen thing to do.”

The impressive and creative mobilizations against the ruling have been met with outright rejection from the country’s rulers. The deputy prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, who is also the leader and founder of PiS, issued a menacing statement on Facebook on Tuesday, endorsing the court ruling and calling the protests “violent social outrages.” Kaczyński, whose PiS-led government has also faced sharp criticism over the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even went so far as to say that the protests could cost lives due to COVID-19 exposure, that they represent “a universal danger” and that authorities should oppose them.

He further stated that the fact that protests are happening outside churches is a “fatal event” as the Catholic church is the “only moral system commonly known in Poland,” and that those opposing it are nihilists and “very bad parts of a certain part of our society.” The “attacks” on churches, he argued “are intended to destroy Poland.” He called on members and supporters of the PiS party to defend the churches.

Abortion restriction: product of an unholy alliance of Church and state

The struggles following the recent judgement are only the latest wave of a decades-long movement. Zofia Malisz explained that the fight for reproductive rights has been a fixture over the past few decades which have seen alliances between Poland’s ruling elite and the ever-mighty Catholic Church. “This has been the struggle of Polish women for generations,” she explained, referring to “activists that are now in their late 50s and early 60s who have been fighting this on the streets since the 1990s.”

The struggle began in 1993, amid a moment of great upheaval and chaos in Poland which was undergoing the transition to a neoliberal capitalist society. Malisz explained that the government which was at the time led by Solidarność (Solidarity), engaged in a “clientilist” exchange with the Church. The Church had been a key ally of Solidarność during the 1980s when it was opposing the communist government. The new government which came to power after the fall of communism repaid this support by implementing policies and laws in line with the Church’s conservative stance.

So, despite widespread opposition and a petition with over 1 million signatures, in 1993, the government changed the legislation regarding abortion which had been legal under the communist government. As mentioned earlier, the 1993 legislation only allowed for voluntary termination of pregnancy in cases of incest, rape, threat to the mother’s health, and fetal defects (which last week was removed as an exception).

The incursion into the private sphere of Polish women and to society as a whole by the Church and their allies has gotten progressively worse, especially after the hard-right PiS government came to power in 2015. The PiS, Malisz explained, also has a “symbiotic [relationship] with the Catholic Church.” For instance, the church supports bills the government wants to pass. “At Mass, for example, a priest would say ‘by the way, after Mass there will be people standing in front of the church and gathering signatures’.” Other manifestations of this relationship include a radical Catholic radio station that fervently supports the government, as well as several right-wing news outlets that “speak in the same voice as the high-ranking clergy.”

In 2016, the PiS, with support and pressure from the Catholic Church, attempted to pass a stricter abortion law in parliament. This was met with massive opposition on the streets called the Black Protests – Polish Women’s Strike. The government was forced to back down. However, this was not the end of their efforts.

PiS’ reforms pave the way

Defeated in parliament, the forces of the right opted for the judicial route. Last Thursday’s decision is the result of PiS’ reforms to the judiciary, an extensive process over the past several years, involving packing key courts with judges loyal to the party and removing checks and balances. This has led to the concentration of power in the executive and erosion of the autonomy of the judiciary. The PiS and its allies “waitied until the judiciary was under their control and then they executed their plan and banned abortion through the verdict of the constitutional court, which is now a politcized body,” Zofia Malisz said.

Role of international right

The PiS and its allies have received international backing too. According to an investigation published on Monday by OpenDemocracy, US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), played an active role in supporting the court’s anti-abortion ruling. The ACLJ was founded in 1990 by televangelist Pat Roberson as a bid to oppose the progressive American Civil Liberties Union. “Its European arm,” OpenDemocracy reported, “has intervened in court cases on issues including same-sex marriage, abortion rights and IVF – it opposes them all.”

On October 16, days before the constitutional court ruling in Poland, the ACLJ’s European arm, the European Centre for Law and Justice, released an Amicus Curiae Brief supporting the restriction of abortion in cases of fetal defects.

Another organization which released an Amicus Curiae Brief on the judgement was the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a Polish ultraconservative anti-choice organization. The organization has gained notoriety over alleged ties with Brazilian and US far-right Christian groups. The organization claims to draw its inspiration from the international conservative Catholic movement Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), founded in Brazil in 1960. It has been a central player in lobbying against abortion, and also has taken right-wing stances on issues such as LGBT policies, anti-discrimination education and more.

Poland for everyone

The constitutional court’s ruling to restrict abortion is part of a larger conservative onslaught in Poland led by the PiS. However, all such efforts have been met with resistance on the streets and in parliament.

Razem, for example, remains committed to fighting for “a vision of Poland for everyone,” Zofia Malisz said. “We want a Poland which reflects the text of our constitution which has a lot of values written in such as social solidarity, and no discrimination,” she added, noting that, “this has never been practiced by the center and right-of-center governments. In our country this particularly concerns the discrimination against LGBTQ people and women, and racial discrimination.”

The left party, along with the organization, Women’s Strike, and dozens of others, has vowed to remain on the streets to resist this latest conservative attack.

Protesters have come together under the “Women’s Strike” banner. Photo: OKO.Press