Aleksandra Wolke reports on a protest against the proposal to ban abortions in Poland, the largest Polish-led political protest in the UK in recent years.
On Saturday 9 April thousands of people demonstrated across Poland against the proposed ban on abortion. The demonstrations were called by the Reclaim Choice Coalition (Porozumienie Odzyskać Wybór) which recently united several feminist and left-wing organisations in resistance to the proposed changes. The protests followed the previous week’s demonstrations called by the Razem Party, also attended by thousands in the country’s major cities. Razem’s London group called for a protest in front of the Polish Embassy to stand in solidarity with Polish women.
The proposed ban on abortion was put forward by an ultra-Catholic pro-life think tank, Ordo Iuris, and is supported by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as the head of the ruling party Law and Justice Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Polish Catholic hierarchy.
The current law or the so-called 1993 ‘compromise’ is already one of the strictest in Europe and only allows women to terminate pregnancy in cases of serious foetus malformation, threats to the woman’s health or life and in cases where pregnancy resulted from a criminal act such as rape or incest. The proposal removes the possibility to terminate pregnancy even in these circumstances and, if implemented, it will force women to give birth regardless of any threat to their wellbeing associated with it. Women will be forced to birth seriously malformed foetuses, the lives of which will end soon after, often in great pain. The proposal will force victims of sexual violence to give birth regardless of the psychological and physical harm it will cause. It will also affect underage victims who are not biologically ready for pregnancy. The new law would introduce prison sentence of up to five years for those who terminate a pregnancy, including pregnant women. Cases of abortion performed to prevent a ‘direct threat’ to a woman’s life would be exempt. However, the definition of ‘direct threat’ would be likely to exclude chronic illnesses such as cancer, the treatment of which would be withheld during pregnancy. Women who miscarried will be put under additional stress by a formal investigation if the circumstances are deemed suspicious by the authorities. The legislative changes would also disincline women from reporting rape and sexual assault.
Importantly, the proposal repeals the obligations of the local governments to provide adequate prenatal care as established by the previous legislation. Such changes will limit or in some cases prevent access to necessary medical services. Up until now, prenatal testing allowed for early diagnoses of foetus malformation and continued care or alternatively constituted the legal basis for abortion.
Over 300 protesters gathered in front of the Polish Embassy in London to stand up for women’s reproductive rights and chanted pro-choice and anti-government slogans. Many Polish women I spoke to thought that the new law presented a threat to their lives, health, dignity and agency. Numerous protesters brought metal coat hangers with them, a painful remainder of illegally performed abortions which each year take a massive toll. Aga Maciejewska from Razem, whose speech opened the protest, asserted that the new law in Poland would ‘reduce women to incubators’. She also emphasised that the new law would disproportionately affect poor women unable to travel to Germany or Slovakia to undergo an abortion. Kelley Temple from Abortion Rights linked the struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Poland to that taking place in Northern Ireland where a woman was recently sentenced for having an abortion. Her speech and a brilliant poem by Eva O’Connor provided a welcome opportunity for emphasising the importance of international solidarity in the fight for women’s rights. Speeches from Polish activists from an informal women’s group Dziewuchy Dziewuchom showed that there is a potential for a new grassroots movement for women’s rights to emerge from opposition to the proposal among Polish migrants.
Saturday’s protests proved that many can be mobilised to resist the current right-wing government not only on the limited liberal terms proposed by Committee for Defence of Democracy (KOD) but also based on more far-reaching (and not so easily diffused) demands for women’s rights and access to healthcare. The demonstration in London was the largest Polish-led political protest in the UK in recent years and suggests new possibilities of mobilising Polish migrants on a progressive platform in the future if the new and established Polish campaigns, networks and organisations maintain their momentum. Importantly, the demonstration attracted significantly more interest than mobilisations by the Polish far-right, which have sadly become a common feature of Polish political life in Britain in the past few years. This shows that the Polish left is gaining the necessary strength and organisation to resist the further rise of far-right tendencies among Polish migrants in the future.
Finally, there are signs that pressure from below works as the government officials became much more cautious about voicing their support for the proposal in the past few days as the scale of popular resistance became evident. It is possible that the proposal will be abandoned, even if temporarily. This would be a serious victory for the Left in Poland and the first sign of government’s weakness since Law and Justice took power, that could eventually help in breaking the dominant position of right-wing nationalists in Poland.