Experiences from the Poland abortion protests
By Scintilla Benevolo
Published Sun Nov 29 2020
Now more than ever, the news we consume is of a limited range of topics: COVID-19, Trump, what is going to happen with this year’s Christmas and New Years? The abortion protests in Poland were comparatively only briefly in the media, but they are far from being an issue of the past. This week’s article is a collection of the experiences and thoughts of Martyna Grodzka, Maggie Maliszewski, Ania Luty, Jagoda Rydzewska, and Piotr Toruński, which I wish to thank dearly for their time. With this article we hope to re-directed attention to the abortion protests in Poland, to their implications for women’s rights, and because -as Piotr points out- what is happening today in Poland is a testimony to a worrying “decay of democracy and civil liberties in a country that, after all, is a part of the European Union.”
The abortion protests in Poland erupted in response to a “nerve-wrecking ruling” (Piotr) by Poland’s constitutional court, which ruled that abortion in the case of fetus abnormalities is illegal according to the Polish constitution, and thereby now outlawed. This ruling has been drawing thousands and thousands of protestors to the streets, all across Poland, for over a month. It is an absolute scandal, for a variety of reasons.
To begin with, abortion rights in Poland have always been rather limited. Now that abortion in the case of severe fetus abnormalities has been outlawed, this practice remains legal in only two scenarios: when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or pedophelia; and when the mother’s life is in danger. As Martyna points out, this attack on abortion rights will be “hitting hardest the poorer women who cannot afford having an abortion done abroad”. “Abortion has always been there and if the government thinks that making it illegal will stop it then they are delusional,” explains Martyna. More privileged women will still have the opportunity to ‘deviate’ the new law by having an abortion abroad, would they want to do so, but those who cannot afford this privilege might seek an illegal abortion, which poses huge health risks.
Secondly, the constitutional court which passed the anti-abortion bill has been appointed in a way that threatens the independence, and thus legitimacy, of the ruling. In 2015, the Law and Justice Party -which is today still in power- won elections and replaced the previous government, ruled by the Civic Platform Party. Before being defeated by the opposition, the Civic Platform Party elected -in also a questionable manner- five constitutional court judges.
A few months later the Law and Justice Party came to power and, instead of swearing in the five judges appointed by the previous government, it chose five new judges which better suited their values and ideological agenda. Furthermore, in the words of Ania, who is studying to become a lawyer, the court’s anti-abortion ruling is “a bunch of lies when you look at it from the perspective of law”. So not only is the tribunal who passed the abortion bill appointed on questionable legal grounds, but the ruling itself is also highly questionable from a perspective of law. Indeed, almost no other judge or law professional agreed with the verdict: it is unclear how abortion in the case of severe fetus abnormalities is incompatible with the Polish constitution. The truth is that the bill has been passed on purely ideological grounds, and in the name of ideology thousands of women will have to live through tremendous pain.
(Credits: Ewa Wielgat)
In the words of Martyna, this bill effectively forces women to “expose themselves to traumas, and give birth to sick children”. She explains how this ruling fails to take into account the financial and emotional resources that are necessary to grow a sick child: “Not everyone can make it work, even if they wished to.” This bill would furthermore force women carrying a dead fetus to give birth, regardless of the psychological consequences this could have on the mother. “Lately, I saw a quote saying that the government cares about the fetus, but not the actual baby, and I find it ON POINT. Where is your financial and psychological support to people who need to go through it?”, explains Martyna.
Thirdly, it is very likely that the government pulled this controversial move last month because they hoped that, given the current COVID situation, it would just go unnoticed: “All of this also happened during the pandemic, obviously the government thought that it would not arouse such big anger, and that it would slip through, and that is just ridiculous, how is such a big thing just going to slip through?” exclaimed Ania during our zoom conversation. Martyna describes the government’s timing as being “quite clever actually”, because they could have used the COVID situation to their advantage in more than one way: either by disincentivizing too many protestors from gathering in the streets -which would attract less attention- or by blaming the surging COVID cases on the women’s protests, thereby shining a negative light on the movement. “It was quite funny seeing a statement released two days after the first protest in propaganda media (TVP, which for people in rural Poland is the only source of information about the protests as it is the only channel they receive) about how the protests have a huge impact on cases increasing. Obviously, it is not possible for the impact of such protests to be visible after two days, but some people still believe that” explains Martyna.
The government has been trying to pass a bill restricting abortion rights for years now: it started in 2016, when the Black Protests erupted in response to a bill which would impose a total abortion ban - and has been going on ever since. The most recent attempt took place last spring, when the bill in question was discussed in parliament after it received 100,000 signatures (In Poland, if a bill receives over 100,000 signatures it must be discussed in parliament). The government however realized it would fail to pass, which is why, this time, they decided to take it to the constitutional court. The fact that the government made this manoeuvre during a global pandemic makes the whole situation even more disturbing. In the words of Jagoda: “It’s sick that this situation is happening, that there is a pandemic going on and women and men are forced to go out on there streets in large numbers and protest. Such a situation should never happen.”
What has happened in Poland is therefore a frightening attack on women’s rights, one which furthermore exemplifies how Poland’s democracy is coming under threat. “Right now, the core and main reason for protesting is still abortion, but generally people are tired of the government and how they change laws in their own favor and make the state more and more authoritarian”, explains Martyna. There is indeed a lot of concern around the current government and its strong ties with the Catholic religion, as they seem to be carrying through a ‘religiosized’ agenda: “On paper, Poland is secular country, however, the depletion of abortion laws is just an example of the influnce of religion on a state decisions,” expalins Martyna. The Law and Justice Party has indeed been criticized for its strong ties to the Catholic church: Catholicism is very widespread in Poland, and it’s not unreasonable to say that the government is using its ties to religion to gain votes and spread propaganda. What is preoccupying for democracy is the way the government is pushing through this agenda: by threatening the impartiality of the judiciary system. Indeed, the EU’s executive commission published a report in September warning of a threat to Poland’s system of checks and balances.
Experiences from the protests: inspiring solidarity and police brutality
In talking to Jagoda Rydzewska and Ania Luty, who are living in Poland and attending the women’s marches, it seemed to me as the protests carried with them two strings of emotions: one of fear, and one of hope and inspiration.
Fear because there have been numerous instances of violence: coming both from the police and from people opposed to the protests. “One day a friend and I wanted to join the protests a bit later, so we took our banners and we walked through the old town to join the march, but the protest had already moved ahead. As we walked we passed a couple of churches, we saw the military police lined up in front of them and many people praying on the streets. Some of them began shouting at us and following us, but we weren’t doing anything, we were just walking with our banners under our arms,” explains Ania. On another occasion, Ania and her friend had to run away from the metro station when a group of 20-30 men started screaming and attacking protestors as they returned home. There have furthermore been multiple instances of individuals opposed to the protests making their way through the crowd and randomly attacking protestors.
The government is spreading many false claims about the protests on TVP, in the hope of drawing bad light to the movement. It can be reasonably speculated that this negative propaganda is partly responsible for these instances of violence. “The government is comparing the protestors to Hitler Youth,” explains Maggie; and is calling the symbol of the protests -a red lightning bolt- a doppelte Seigrune, “in parliament, the leader of the governing party told the opposition to ‘take the SS symbols off their masks’”. Ania furthermore explains how the national television is spreading lies about the marches, “they will say that the protestors are violently attacking random individuals, which is not true, because they want to portray us as the bad guys… a friend of mine had a group of people come in front of her door and try to punch it down because she had a banner from the protests hanging from her window. It has even become scary to put stuff up in your windows.”
Violence is unfortunately also coming from the side of the police. “I know that my friends are protesting, and sometimes it worries me because I see a lot of people going to jail, people being beaten up and tear gassed,” explains Maggie. Maggie also told me of a recent incident where “a lot of protestors gathered on a square, and the police first said they should disperse and go their own way, but then they decided to lock them all in the square and not let anybody out, and they started spraying teargas at them”. According to Jagoda, this happening is “the best example of the fact that the police, who’s supposed to protect people, cannot control its own aggression.”
“This brutality comes especially from the civil police, which is really scary because you can’t tell if it’s a police man which you should look to for safety or just a violent civilian,” explains Jagoda. What is especially frightening is that if you, as a protester, are suddenly attacked, choosing to self-defend could have serious consequences, because if the attacker turns out to be civil police you will be charged with police brutality and face a significant jail sentence. Police has been furthermore using COVID as a pretext to jail protestors: “[we are always reminded to] take pictures that prove that you are social distancing and wearing a mask, because that is the proof you need if you are going to be arrested,” explains Ania. But the protests also carry them “an amazing positive energy,” tells Ania. “Even if I talk about it I get tingles all over my body,” she says smiling, with her banner from the protests hanging in the background. “The protests are a lot of support, especially psychologically, for all of the people involved, because I get to see that I am not alone, and that there are so many different people, with different political beliefs and social classes, which take part. Everyone is united. I see gay couples, which are not directly affected by this, which still find it important and go on the streets, and it really helps me to see this type of solidarity. Right now it’s especially important to feel that solidarity: when the government leaves you alone, it’s important to see that support coming from somewhere else.”
“It was shocking and hopeful to see the solidarity,” explains Martyna, “I believe that the government expected Warsaw people to protest, but not the citizens from smaller towns or villages… In my opinion those smaller protests have changed everything, together with overwhelming responses on social media and men's support that was not as clearly visible during previous years.”
Smaller towns and villages have indeed, to the surprise of the government, been playing a really active role. “My parents live in a small village near Warsaw, with around 4,000 inhabitants. One time I was driving to Warsaw when I saw a group of 40-50 people standing on the streets. I drove closer and to my surprise I saw that people were protesting, even in this small village! So I drove next to them, I put a song from the protests on maximum volume, and everyone started singing, and dancing, and it was amazing. It’s a tiny village where most people are really catholic and generally right wing, and it was just really nice to see that even people from small places are trying to help, even when it’s just 40 people in comparison to the thousands in Warsaw,” tells Ania.
“One of the main criticisms against the protests is that people are really vulgar and aggressive, they say ‘I understand they are not happy, but do they need to be so vulgar and obscene?’... But people have been trying to communicate this message in a different way for years, and nobody has listened, and now the decision was made without us, behind our backs, so staying ‘fuck off’ is really nothing compared to what the government did to the people in Poland,” explains Jagoda. In the words of Ania: “the time for being nice has just passed, right now its just straight on ‘fuck you’”.
Here are some resources you can consult to help protestors in Poland:
Aborcja Bez Granic
Aborcyjny Dream Team