Poland’s Historic Fight for Abortion Rights

Last week, Poland banned abortion after its government stacked the courts with right-wing ideologues. But they didn’t count on women fighting back — and now they face a historic wave of protest.

People gather and light up their smartphones or lanterns to form an inscription saying WYBÓR ("choice"), along with a lightning bolt, to show solidarity with the protests against the Constitutional Court ruling on tightening the abortion law at Blonia Park on November 03, 2020 in Krakow, Poland. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)

Poland is on fire. During a historic recession, amid the worst pandemic since World War I, the Constitutional Court decided that abortion is unconstitutional in cases of lethal fetal abnormalities. This decision unleashed a wave of furious women’s protests, without precedent in democratic Poland.

The Polish abortion regulation bill from 1993 stated that abortion was legal in three cases: when pregnancy is a result of rape, when the life of the mother is at risk, or in the case of lethal fetal abnormalities. In the last decade, an estimated 95–97 percent of legal abortions in Poland were carried out due to the latter condition, meaning that the recent verdict is an effective ban on abortion, with only the remaining 3 percent of cases remaining legal.

The Law and Justice party (PiS) is responsible for the current makeup of the Constitutional Court; part of the legal establishment believes that the Court has been politicized to the point that its decisions are not legally binding. The debate between the lawyers is one thing, but something much bigger is happening: women are organizing politically in the biggest mobilization in the country’s history.

The government had already tried to pass an anti-abortion bill written by a far-right legal think tank, Ordo Iuris, once before but had to abandon their plans due to an unrelenting wave of “Black Protests” of an estimated 160,000 protesters back in 2016. So far, women’s protests have been the only fully effective social mobilization against the Law and Justice government — the only ones to force the government to take a step back.

If the mobilization in 2016 was big, the one in 2020 is a force of nature. Picketing, chanting, spontaneous walks in over eighty towns and cities, several marches of more than fifty thousand people. The current protests have taken place after the decision was already made, when we know for a fact that roughly a thousand women each year will be forced to carry to term fetuses with severe abnormalities.

In the streets, one can hear the resounding anger, helplessness, and naked fury. The biggest pro-choice organization, the Polish Women’s Strike (OSK), named their campaign “This Is War”: the protests developed immediately after the announcement of the ruling on Thursday night. As thousands of people gathered by the Warsaw residence of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, tens if not hundreds of police vans arrived on the scene. In the early morning hours, the protesters were hit with tear gas by the police.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Poland.

The next day, the OSK organized a series of mass demonstrations in all major Polish cities. The protests are massive, furious, and unusually vulgar. “Get the Fuck Out!” is the official slogan of the protest — only a few months ago, this kind of language would have been unthinkable. The previous wave of political protests maintained a certain liberal decorum: witty slogans, caricature, satire, imagery, a blasphemous rhyme here and there. Now the slogans are both violent and clearly anti-government. As we roamed the streets of Warsaw in an eleven-kilometer march, people gathered on balconies to wave and swear together, and drivers sounded their horns to reinforce the slogans; a display of solidarity I have never seen before.

Each day, new groups are joining the protests. Last Sunday, in the little town of Nowy Dwór Gdański (population 10,000), the women’s protest was reinforced by a long tractor column of protesting farmers who had just finished picketing against changes in the animal welfare bill. In several towns, women’s protests were joined by football fans; in Praga, an old, working-class part of Warsaw, middle-aged men started posting photos on local Facebook groups showing their support. Some of them took selfies making a characteristic L sign with their fingers — a clear indicator that they are Legia football team supporters.

The trade union of taxi drivers organized their own protest unit, and many local council institutions added the symbol of the strike — a red thunderbolt. The government pushes the propaganda to the limits: the protest has already been compared to the SS, the Gestapo, Italian fascism, and Bolshevism. The panic is apparent.

Interestingly, the gender balance of the protests has significantly shifted since 2016, when the last massive wave of protests took place. Back then, there were mostly women. Now, people come with their families, friends, and colleagues. Last Friday, I saw a large corporate group organizing before joining the march, bringing along partners, parents, and children. The youth plays a leading role in the protests: instead of the old bards of the past revolutions, the music of the protests is Eric Prydz’s “Call On Me,” Rage Against the Machine, Miley Cyrus, or new-wave Polish synth-pop. Technically, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, teenagers under the age of sixteen are not legally permitted to leave the house. “We have a government to topple,” the slogans say.

On Tuesday, five days into the powerful, nationwide women’s mobilization, Kaczyński delivered a six-minute address to the nation. The speech was both offensive and surreal, the level of disconnection with the social reality quite shocking. “There are no alternative systems of morality to that offered by the Catholic Church,” he said. “Rejecting the Church means nihilism.” He called on his supporters to “defend the churches at any cost. This protest will bring an end to the history of this nation.”

Jarosław Kaczyński’s speech on October 27, 2020.

I was not even a year old when Poland began its transition to democracy, so Tuesday was the first time in my lifetime that an active member of the government, the de facto leader of the nation, declared war on his own people. It is telling that the word “women” does not appear once in Kaczyński’s speech; the protesters are depicted as genderless “nihilists” who “commit a very serious crime” by not following the COVID-19 restrictions.

The video has an eerie quality to it: it seems like it was filmed in the mid-1990s; Kaczyński sits with his big, puffed-up, pale palms uncomfortably close to the viewers. He even suggested the protesters were trained abroad — the oldest trick in the book. The whole movement asked questions yesterday: Has he actually lost it? Will the army be used to pacify the protests? One of the opposition party leaders commented in response to Kaczyński’s address: “Even if, by some miracle, people on both sides keep their cool, provocations will happen. You will have blood on your hands.” All of this is happening as COVID cases are skyrocketing — they’re currently standing at 18,000 cases per day.

To persist in such a distinctly threatening situation requires character. The leader of the Polish Women’s Strike (OSK), Marta Lempart, called for a strike on Wednesday, October 28, and a march through Warsaw on October 30. The leadership of OSK published a list of demands, including the removal of the wrongfully nominated chair of the Constitutional Court, cancellation of the ruling, full abortion rights for women, and the resignation of the government.

Meanwhile, government officials anonymously admit the complete political failure of passing the ruling during the pandemic, but no public declaration has been made to that effect. The day after Kaczyński’s ominous speech, thousands of women hit the streets again — with the same, if not increased, perseverance.

Earlier this year, one of the leaders of OSK, Klementyna Suchanow, published a powerful book under the same ominous title, This Is War, in which she describes the way the ultraradical right manages to lobby democratic forces to implement laws straight out of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia.

As she argues, if women give in to ideologues now, if they allow them to lobby our governments, the far right will end up passing legislation to imprison women for miscarriages or remove any medical grounds for abortion, as the previous Ordo Iuris bill did. It seems that Poland has reached a critical point. Women’s oppression will have to end — now.