The Polish Government has recently introduced a blanket ban on abortion, sparking mass protests. Alexandra Day reports.
The right-wing Polish government has been making increasingly repressive attacks on people’s rights this year.
The Catholic, far-right party ‘Law and Justice’ (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) is the largest party in government. Unsurprisingly, their party programme espouses anything but law or justice. The current president, Andrzej Duda, was backed by PiS to narrowly win the election during the summer. These developments have empowered violent, racist, homophobic, and sexist mobilisations on the ground.
Backed up by priests, these rallies demand the reinstatement of ‘white civilisation’ and ‘traditional’ Catholicism against supposed encroaching Western ‘decadence’ or even ‘Communism’. Readers may find this language similar to the fascist rhetoric of the early twentieth century.
Far-right groups, such as the National Radical Camp, a revival of a 1930s Polish fascist group inspired by the Catholic Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, have emerged in growing numbers.
Ban on Abortion
Since taking power, PiS have pursued a worryingly authoritarian programme of policies: press censorship; the ending of separation of powers between government and the judiciary; centralising power; and gagging civil society. For many women, migrants and LGBT people, it has been hellish.
Earlier this summer, state-sanctioned homophobia in the form of ‘LGBT-free towns’ emerged across the country. This followed pledges made by Duda during the elections, which included the banning of teaching about LGBT issues in schools and the proposal of changing the constitution to ban LGBT couples from adopting children. Duda declared in June that “LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology which is worse than Communism”.
It is distressing, if not surprising, that the government have attempted to introduce a near-total ban on abortion. Though Poland already had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe the constitutional tribunal ruled that terminations should be illegal even in cases where a foetus is diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. This accounts for almost all of the small number of abortions performed legally in the country.
The move has been unpopular, with an opinion poll conducted for Gazeta Wyborcza suggesting that 59% of those surveyed disagreed with the change. Many have speculated that the move comes as an attempt to direct attention away from the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government has already been forced to delay the ban as a result of massive protests which erupted across the country. The ongoing All-Poland Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet) has mobilised hundreds of thousands on the streets to demand bodily autonomy and an end to the right-wing rule of PiS. Protesters have disrupted church services across the country to highlight the attempts of the Church to control women’s bodies.
Much like the months and weeks leading up to the historic vote to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, women have been breaking the silence and stigma surrounding abortion by sharing their personal stories at these demonstrations. The phone number of abortion services has become a chant in itself. These mobilisations have only increased in strength and number over recent years.
As Ania Wojewodka, Polish activist and organiser of Strak Kobiet solidarity demonstrations in Waterford remarked:
Since 2015, there have been many protests against [the PiS], starting in a more quiet manner… but within the last five years, the situation has gotten worse and the protests have started to get bigger and stronger. People of Poland have felt they haven’t been listened to when they protested in a quiet manner. On the 22nd of October, after the rather illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal effectively banned abortion in Poland, the protests erupted all over the country with a force we haven’t seen since the 1980s strikes which eventually led to the fall of communism. The organisers are calling for the government to step down and for the people to take over.
At the end of October, left MPs disrupted the parliament to draw attention to the protests, donning masks with the movement’s symbol, a red lightning bolt, and raising pro-choice chants against the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. The significance of this demonstration will not be lost on those who remember when People Before Profit and Solidarity TDs faced discipline for wearing Repeal jumpers in the Dáil in 2016.
The government has tried to curtail the protests by deploying riot and military police. They have been captured using excessive, violent force on protesters – the majority of whom are women – though it has not dampened their determination. More troubling is the government’s reliance on the most militant, fascist groups who have been emboldened by the state, and have also tried to break up the protests through intimidation and violence.
There has been a massive global outpouring of solidarity with the protests, in many cases led by Polish migrants. As Wojewodka further commented:
… when [the PiS] came to power fifteen years ago, that was one more reason for me to leave Poland as I don’t want to be ruled by religious fanatics. Since then, I have been watching the situation develop, and in October I realised it was time to stand up and support my compatriots in Poland because they need the international community to help fight against the fanaticism of this government. We have held solidarity protests in Waterford every Sunday since the protests in Poland started and we will keep going for as long as it takes. Thanks to the help of my like-minded friends, we have managed to gain some traction amongst Irish people and we are hoping to gain even more support.
“When the state fails to protect us, I’ll stand by my sister.” This is a popular chant and slogan among the protests in Poland, but it is relevant across the globe.
It is vital that we stand with our Polish comrades against the manoeuvres of the right-wing government and their baying mobs, who would see the country become some parody of the Handmaid’s Tale. In Ireland, the Repeal victory was an important milestone on the journey to bodily autonomy and the separation of church and state.
In many counties, abortion remains inaccessible or non-existent due to the lack of appropriate GP services. In the North, the campaign to allow women to access abortion services remotely during the pandemic is ongoing. The recent decision of the government to seal the Mother and Baby Home archives has brought the interconnection of the state and the Catholic church back into the spotlight.
Globally, in the United States, right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court have jeopardised abortion rights in most states. In Malta, abortion remains almost totally banned. It is clear that there are many struggles to be won, both in Ireland and abroad, but it is possible if we fight together.
The struggle for a fairer, more equal world cannot be won until all people have full bodily autonomy.