This Is About More Than Abortion Rights in Poland

Poland's protests can be a rallying cry for a new feminist internationalism that demands and wins public services for care, social housing, universal health care, and wage justice.

A woman protests against the Constitutional Court ruling on tightening the abortion law at Krakow's Main Square. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)

In Polish director Marta Górnicka’s revolutionary production, “The Chorus of Women,” twenty-five women appear on stage, whispering, singing, and yelling in haunting tones, “be beautiful,” “be quiet” — “be a woman.” The trilogy sees the choir scream and gasp against chants of the Bacchae and the gospels, and in one play, utter the hoarse, final words — “I’m calling out to you.”

Gornicka’s chorus is echoed on the streets of Warsaw today. Tens of thousands of women are in open revolt against Poland’s new abortion ban. Their slogan of choice, “Wypierdalać” translates to “get the fuck out of here.” “[N]ow we are mad, not just unhappy,” wrote feminist philosopher Ewa Majewska, echoing the protesters, “I am terrified;” “I feel unimportant.” Their signs read: “women’s hell.”

The context of abortion debates is more varied than they seem at first glance. Until recently, women were penalized for bearing more than one child in China, while in Ecuador, they continue to be imprisoned for choosing to abort. In India, Armenia, or Hong Kong, the practice of sex-selective abortion — the abortion of female fetuses — has often pit women’s right to choose against the rights of future women, so to speak.

Despite these complexities, dominant narratives today risk marking what’s happening in Poland as being exclusively about abortion or Poland.

Authoritarian nationalists attempt to use women, and our bodies, as conduits for the production of national identity and honor. The protests aim “to destroy Poland and end the history of the Polish nation,” said Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party.

In response, liberal feminism attempts to universalize the experience of abortion through the rubric of “choice.” Every woman must have the freedom to choose. This of course is true. But “freedom to choose” is woefully inadequate rhetoric. How many working-class women, for example, can afford, in its expansive sense, abortion even when its legal? Most abortions are shaped by wider social factors, whether by stigma of illegitimacy, financial constraints, or a fear of being held back in careers.

Both these approaches to reproductive issues are misplaced. They both fail to understand that love and gendered labor create and sustain human beings, but such labor goes both unrecognized and inadequately compensated.

Instead, we need to build a feminist internationalism. Internationalizing reproductive justice challenges our understanding not just of pregnancy and abortion, not just our right to have children and our right not to have them, but every other aspect of the reproduction of our social communities.

This is where the idea of a women’s strike, or Strajk Kobiet in Poland, becomes critical. Typically, a worker’s strike is a withdrawal of labor, and it illuminates in one fell swoop, who keeps the capitalist machinery running. Wage workers for the factory, drivers for public transport, janitors for universities. What of women’s unpaid work that sustains the world?

In 2016, women in Poland and Argentina organized mass demonstrations for abortion rights and against gender violence that inspired feminists around the globe to plan for an international women’s strike in 2017. Millions of women in over forty countries took part in the strike on March 8, and extensive networks of international solidarity and feminist politics were established.

By withdrawing from labor both paid and unpaid, the protests challenged what counts as labor. The home was at once made public. The personal was at once made political. Women taking to the streets in Poland against this latest attack on abortion rights brings us back full circle to the Polish streets again where the movement first began.

The history of abortion law in Poland is a testimony to states fighting to forge national identities over the bodies of women. In 1932, Poland became the first country in Europe to legalize abortion beyond medical cases, namely, when the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act. Toward the middle of the century, this law was expanded to include “difficult living conditions.” So liberal were the laws during this time that activists would help Swedes travel to Poland to access abortions.

This changed in the 1990s due to conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and crumbling state socialism. A severely restrictive “abortion compromise” permitted abortion in only three cases: rape, mortal risk to the woman, or fatal congenital diseases in the fetus. Last week’s ban on this third condition, pushed through Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to avoid legislative debate, brings Poland’s women into the twenty-first century authoritarian playbook.

To confront these reactionary forces, a new feminist internationalism must move beyond the simple narrative of “choice.” Women’s right to choose must be supported, but that’s only half the job. We must simultaneously examine the responsibility that we collectively share to ensure that women have greater reproductive control overall, not just over abortions, but pregnancy, desire, and pleasure.

“The only way we stop the global reactionist wave is together, in streets everywhere, demanding what is ours: our bodies, our lives, our country, the world,” wrote Zofia Malisz of Lewica Razem, a left-wing political party in Poland. A feminist international must take a women’s strike across borders, through streets, political halls of power, workspaces, and homes.

In the manifesto, Feminism for the 99%, the authors note that capitalism’s key move was to “separate the making of people from the making of profit.” The first job was assigned to women, and then made to submit to the second. A feminist international must upturn this system.

We need a feminism that demands and wins public services for care, social housing, universal health care, and wage justice. We need an internationalism that rejects forced austerity on the global south, imperial aid interventions, and neocolonialism. This is where Górnicka’s “I’m calling out to you” meets Warsaw’s “Wypierdalać” today.

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Tithi Bhattacharya is the author of Feminism for the 99% and a member of the Progressive International COVID-19 Response Collective.

Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla is a cabinet member and the coordinator of blueprint at Progressive International.

Tessy Schlosser is the coordinator of movement at Progressive International.

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