Poland has restrictive laws regarding abortion. Highly influenced by the Catholic Church abortion is only allowed in cases of rape, incest, disability of the foetus and a risk to the health of the mother. Even with such restrictive laws, a termination can still be refused under these circumstances. In Poland medical personal can invoke a conscience clause and refuse to carry out a termination for religious or moral reasons. Under the existing law there is no punishment for women accessing an abortion outside of these terms, but fewer than 2000 legal abortions take place each year. However women’s groups estimate a further 100,000 to 150,000 take place illegally or outside the country.
Earlier this year a citizen’s initiative called ‘Stop Abortion’ set out to restrict the law in Poland even further. It was supported by a Christian think-tank Ordo Iuris that gathered 450,000 signatures in a country of 38 million. This ban would have included criminalising miscarriage in “suspicious” circumstances for both the pregnant woman and anybody assisting her. It would also have led to the prevention of pre natal testing and seen women and doctors jailed for up to five years for accessing or assisting with abortions.
The conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has a majority in parliament, was a strong supporter of the proposal. PIS is closely affiliated with the Catholic Church and are equally vocal in their criticism of homosexuality, their opposition to same-sex marriage and IVF. PiS have even introduced the concept of “family mainstreaming” as central to their policy making. This is used by conservatives in government to strengthen “traditional” values and nationalist ideals that emphasise the rights of the family over those of individuals and minorities
Black Monday October 3rd was the pro-choice response. Thousands of women across Poland dressed in black and took to the streets to protest against the proposed abortion ban. They marched in black as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights and the future death of women due to an abortion ban. The protests took place in over 60 cities. Theaters and museums across the country were closed, whilst universities in Warsaw closed departments and cancelled lectures as students boycotted school and college. Women held signs that said “a government is not like a pregnancy it can be terminated” as they chanted outside government offices that they wanted doctors not missionaries.
Solidarity protests took place across Europe in Dublin, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin. PiS had underestimated the level of anger provoked by the legislation and the capacity of the campaign to organise and mobilise so many women. This show of people power on the streets led to the Polish parliament rejecting the bill outright by 352 votes to 58.
The fight for reproductive rights is by no means over, with new citizen initiatives already being submitted to parliament by the Polish Federation of Movements for the Defence of Life. Meanwhile, Jaroslaw Kaczynski the leader of PiS has said his politicians will continue to promote legalisation to tighten the countries anti-abortion laws. In a recent interview Kaczynski said “we will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die or strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name.”
This is the barbarity that women still have to put up with but the lessons from Poland are clear – people power forced the government to roll back on their proposed abortion ban. Poland allowed abortion in extremely limited circumstances with attached conditions because of this is was easy to propose laws to start to reverse this. We in Ireland must continue to fight for full access to free safe and legal abortion without restrictions and we must continue to take to the streets in order to achieve this.