A Growing Force: Poland’s Protests Over Abortion
By: Sara Adus
Warsaw is anything but quiet as protesters clash with government supporters over the latest ruling on abortion. For nearly two weeks, protestors have been mobilizing in the streets in an attempt to bring awareness to what they believe to be a violation of their rights and advocate for a policy change. Young women and men alike have shown up in the thousands. It is estimated by the police that 430,000 people attended protests all over the country in one day alone, making it one of the largest mass demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.
On Thursday, October 22nd, the country’s laws on abortion were tightened by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal. The tribunal is a collective of judges who address disputes regarding the constitution. The majority of the judges were appointed by the now ruling party, Law and Justice. The party has been accused of heavily involving the Catholic Church in its decisions. While there is no official religion in Poland, the Roman-Catholic Church is followed by a large demographic and has a well-established relationship with the government.
The government has also been criticized for reforming the law using the tribunal council. The party has tried numerous times to make the laws on abortion stricter, but have been unable to do so with opposing votes in Parliament. Rather than making a legislative change, the Law and Justice party used the Constitutional Tribunal as a shortcut.
Poland’s laws regarding abortion are some of the tightest laws in Europe. Among other traditionally Catholic countries, Poland’s criteria for abortions are quite narrow. The recent decision to ban pregnancy terminations for fetuses that have a severe or irreversible impairment is what sparked the protests. Under the tribunal, it was ruled that it’s unconstitutional to conduct an abortion for that reason, despite the 1,074 abortions performed in 2019 due to fetal abnormalities and defects.
As a result, there are now only two circumstances in which women in Poland can undergo an abortion, in the event a woman’s health is at risk or if her pregnancy is the result of a crime (i.e. rape or incest).
Limitations and stricter criteria for abortions however are pushing Polish women to seek out abortions in neighboring countries. The choice many women make to go abroad for their abortions is in consideration of both the countries laws and the health care system. In addition to strict laws, even women who are eligible for abortions are also subjected to long waits that can take several weeks. This leads women to undergo unsafe abortions if they cannot afford to go abroad or wait.
For Poland, protests over abortion rights are all too familiar. In 2016, 30,000 women in Poland went on strike after a proposed bill to completely ban abortions except when a woman’s life is in danger. Their strike earned the name “Black Monday” and pushed politicians to vote against the proposition. Over three days, politicians distanced themselves from the proposition and it was eventually voted against by lawmakers.
Protesters are now trying to recreate this impactful movement. A new wave of Polish activists is growing from the protests. Unlike the 2016 protests, they’ve openly challenged the church and its influence in the judiciary process. Their defiance of the social taboo of respecting the church has increased their recognition. As well, it identified them as a force not to be reckoned with. Their boldness has led to demonstrations in church services all over the country and the vandalism of cathedrals in an attempt to catch the attention of conservative lawmakers.
In wake of the protests, politicians have also adopted this boldness. On October 28th, Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus of the opposition, along with other members of the opposition, wore black shirts with lightning bolts. The symbol of the lightning bolt has since been used by demonstrators in the streets and is the symbol of the movement.
With 59% of the general public disagreeing with the policy change, it's expected that the protests will continue until reforms are introduced. Protesters have shown no sign of retraction and their adamance on change is expected to carry on, regardless of the current pandemic. Ultimately, it's a matter of when the government will give in, not if.
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.
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