Poland’s mass protests for abortion rights: ‘This is war’

A proposal to ban most terminations has triggered the largest rallies post-communism Poland has witnessed.

Women and men across the country are protesting against the ruling [File: Reuters]

Anna has been among the hundreds of thousands who recently marched through the streets of Warsaw, rallying for abortion rights amid the largest protests since the fall of communism.

“When the state fails to protect us, I’ll stand by my sister,” said some signs raised up amid the anger. “I think, I feel, I decide” and “This is war”, read others.

But the main message to the Law and Justice party, Catholic Church and anti-abortion rights movement was simpler: “F*** you!”, screamed the masses.

On October 22, the new Polish Constitutional Tribunal, filled with the acolytes of the governing party, decided to ban abortion even in cases of fetal defects.

Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe – and most of the limited number of terminations allowed were in cases of fetal defects.

The street’s response was immediate. Despite the pandemic, women and men across the country blocked roads and stormed churches. In response, right-wing groups formed units to protect the churches, at times clashing with the angry crowds.

The tribunal’s ruling reminded Anna, whose name has been changed at her request, of her painful ordeal.

The now 40-year-old has been pregnant twice, but in both instances did not reach full term. Because of fetal defects, she terminated her first pregnancy in the Netherlands where she used to live. Her second pregnancy could have killed her.

“In Poland, I got pregnant again. In the sixth week, I got an ultrasound and it turned out that the heart was not beating as it should. I started to bleed. I was told that I should see a doctor,” Anna told Al Jazeera.

“I went to the hospital and the doctor was rude. She knew that it’s most likely a miscarriage and she said that she should take care of pregnant women first. She said her equipment is not good enough to prove that the heart had stopped beating and that if it did, the miscarriage would happen naturally.”

But it did not. Two weeks later, Anna went to another doctor and he advised her to get an abortion immediately. The fetus had died and if she continued carrying it, sepsis, which is potentially lethal, could have set in.

The hospital she had visited previously was a well-known Warsaw anti-abortion rights clinic. They would do anything to save a pregnancy, she said. Even at the cost of the mother’s life.

She soon found a doctor who agreed to perform the abortion.

“I took a pill and after an hour it was over. But a pregnant woman in the nineteenth week from a small town, who was staying in the same room as me, went through hell. Her gynaecologist had not told her that women over 35 can get free prenatal tests,” Anna said.

“When she finally did them, she learned that the fetus was sick. Her doctor refused to terminate her pregnancy or tell her where she can get a legal abortion.”

The majority of protesters are girls and women between the ages of 15 and 40, but various other groups have joined in. The demonstrators have created a council which has made a series of demands, including the government’s resignation.

Until now, the government has not published the ruling, which contradicts current Polish law. As the rallies grew, President Andrzej Sebastian Duda backed down and proposed a new bill that would make abortion legal in case of some fetal defects, but the protesters continue their battle.

If the ruling goes through as it stands, abortion will be almost completely banned.

Clause of conscience

Doctors who are against it can refuse to terminate pregnancies, citing the clause of conscience. In small conservative towns, women have often felt abandoned, even though in certain circumstances abortion was their right.

In many cases, Polish women have travelled to Germany or the Czech Republic to terminate pregnancies.

The Women’s Strike, the organisation behind the protests, wants a return to the former – limited abortion access, but also legalisation, better perinatal care, and much more.

“The protesters have several separate postulates. There are anti-government slogans, which attract various groups, far removed from the feminist movement, such as miners or farmers, who are traditionally conservative voters but supported the protests because of their anti-government dimension,” said Kaja Puto, a journalist with Krytyka Polityczna, a left-wing media circle.

“Secondly, they are anti-church, which shows the frustration with the omnipotence of the Catholic Church in Poland. According to Pew research centre, Poland is the fastest secularising country in the world.”

Duda’s initiative has met resistance from people within the governing party and anti-abortion rights movements.

“Some of the women who did not join the protests are pro-life and want to protect those who are defenceless – unborn children. They ask: If everyone has a voice, why don’t disabled children?” said Marta Piasecka, an anti-abortion rights mother of two.

“Other women who don’t participate in the Women’s Strike are those who do not agree with this form of protest: Vandalism and aggression that some of the protesters display. It insults women’s dignity. They also disagree with the devastation of churches as well as religious and patriotic monuments.”

Demonstrators block a street during an anti-government protest [File: Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

But despite some resistance, the protests continue.

Natalia Żwirek, an activist from a small town, Słubice, was surprised when 500 people joined the march she organised.

Although women in her region have easier access to abortion, since it is close to Germany and the borderland has several abortion clinics advertising services in Polish, Żwirek remains angry.

“I cannot stand that they continue to limit our freedoms. They expect us to accept inhumane suffering and they don’t care what we feel. They are treating us as childbearing machines, this is humiliating,” says Żwirek.

Anna goes a step further.

“All the suffering that women have to go through could be avoided. But this is how they exercise their power. Everything is political.”

The majority of protesters are young females between 15-40 years old, but groups from across the social strata have joined in [File: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]