Nationwide protests in Poland against move to restrict abortion

Ruling conservative government is moving for a second time to tighten abortion laws

People protesting against a new government measure to further restrict abortions in Poland gather as part of “Black Friday” demonstrations  in Poznan on Friday. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

People protesting against a new government measure to further restrict abortions in Poland gather as part of “Black Friday” demonstrations in Poznan on Friday. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Clutching wire hangers and waving black flags, tens of thousands of Poles took to their cities’ streets on Friday to protest against renewed efforts to tighten already restrictive abortion laws.

On a square in the western city of Poznan, women young and old chanted “Solidarity!” and howled with anger over an issue they considered resolved – but now see under attack from the national conservative government.

“I don’t know what we can do to stop this but at least it’s good to feel the energy and anger,” said Malgorzata (33) holding a sign reading “Rebel Girl is Always Free”.

Fellow protester Magdalena, who is also 33, said: “This government has polarised Poland like never before, but at least people are waking up.”

For the second time in two years, the ruling national conservative government is moving to tighten laws that allow abortions here only in cases of incest, rape and nonviable foetuses, or when the mother’s life is threatened.

The Polish government abandoned its first attempt to restrict abortion in 2016 after massive national protests. Now a “Stop Abortion” citizens’ initiative, calling for an end to “eugenic” abortions, has filed a Bill with parliament banning all abortions on genetic grounds, including Down Syndrome. It would also oblige women to carry to term a baby unlikely to survive after birth.

The initiative has passed the Polish parliament’s human rights committee but a plan for a second committee vote this week were postponed. Protests across Poland went ahead anyway on Friday for fear the government will rush through a parliamentary vote before opponents call another demonstration.

Constitution

In parallel to their parliamentary push, the “Stop Abortion” citizens’ initiative has asked Poland’s constitutional tribunal to rule on whether abortion “on genetic grounds” is in keeping with the constitution.

Article 38 of the Polish constitution guarantees “the legal protection of life of every human being”.

Pro-choice campaigners fear the constitutional tribunal, now under control of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, will follow Ireland’s example from 1983 to restrict abortion laws still further. Such a ruling by Poland’s highest court would be difficult for future parliaments to reverse.

More than 200 human rights and women’s groups, from Ireland to New Zealand, have signed a petition expressing concern at “relentless attempts to roll back the reproductive rights of women in Poland”.

The new draft Bill, the petition warns, “will place women’s health and lives at risk and violate Poland’s international human rights obligations”.

Restricting abortion was a key policy in the Law and Justice party’s 2015 general election success. Delivering on that promise before this year’s local elections would, political observers say, ensure political backing of Polish bishops from the pulpits.

Ahead of “right to life” ceremonies in Catholic churches this weekend, Poznan archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki said “every child has a right to be born and live, from the the moment of conception, independent of whether an illness or genetic defect is diagnosed”.

Infuriated

But the united push by PiS and church leaders to restrict abortion has infuriated pro-choice Polish women who have difficulty finding doctors prepared to carry out the legal procedure.

Watching the Poznan protest was mayor Jacek Jaskowiak of the liberal Civic Platform party, ousted from national government in Warsaw in 2015. He is positioning Poznan as the capital of progressive Poland and plans to open a clinic where gynaecologists will offer women round-the-clock advice, prescriptions and treatment.

“I am trying to keep a kind of normality here, including for our women, although in the last two years I see this government undermining our rights, step by step,” he said. “I don’t think the alliance in Poland between church and the ruling party is a good thing.” 

Officially up to 1,800 legal abortions are performed in Poland annually. When backstreet and foreign terminations are included, however, women’s groups say the true figure may be as high as 150,000. 

At the biggest march on Friday in Warsaw, organisers called for solidarity with Polish women – and with pro-choice campaigners in Ireland.

“I hope Irish women succeed in May but unfortunately for us, Poland is moving in the wrong direction,” said Wanda Nowicka, a leading Polish women’s rights campaigner and co-organiser of Friday’s marches.