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The year of Black Protest

This article originally appeared in “Meanwhile in the Baltics…“, a collection of articles written by the graduates of 2016 Solidarity Academy – Baltic Sea Youth Dialogue, organised by the European Solidarity Centre in partnership with the Council of the Baltic Sea States. 

March 2, 2017 - Svitlana Ovcharova - Articles and Commentary

Black March in support of abortion rights Łodz October 2nd 2016 55

In 2016, the topic of the abortion ban has been among the most popular issues discussed in Polish media. Citizen legislation initiatives, several-thousand-strong demonstrations and public appearances of representatives of the Catholic church were on the front pages, and Polish politicians actively tried to find a solution or at least present the concerns of society with regards to the issue.

The epoch of legal abortion

Abortion in Poland has not always been banned. From 1956 until the 1990s it was legal and performed in state-run clinics for free. The reason for terminating a pregnancy could be not only a threat to a woman’s life, or foetal diseases, but also, for example, a difficult material situation of the mother.

At the beginning of the 1990s, circles connected with the Catholic church launched a campaign against legal abortion. At the time, a project banning the practice altogether was prepared and after it was submitted for review of the Sejm (the lower Chamber of the Polish Parliament – editor’s note), the parliament decided to conduct a public opinion poll about legal access to abortion. Almost 53 per cent of respondents answered that in case of a referendum on the issue, they would vote in favour of legalisation. The legislation draft was rejected.

The crucial event was the 1993 adoption of the law “On family planning, protection of human foetus and conditions allowing for termination of pregnancy”, which introduced the restrictions that are still in place. The law is often referred to as the “abortion compromise” between the state and the Catholic church.

The missing compromise

The enacted law permits abortion only in three cases: when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, when the pregnancy is a result of rape, and in the case of foetal disease.

Over the 23 years since the introduction of the law, several attempts were made to amend it. The first one took place only a year after the bill came into force, when as a result of a request made by a parliamentary women’s group, the Sejm reviewed the possibility of liberalising the law and allowing for abortion if a woman is in a difficult financial situation.

The Sejm passed the law, but the then-president Lech Wałęsa refused to sign it. The situation was repeated two years after in the next convocation of parliament and after the end of Wałęsa’s term in office. The amendment came into force only in 1996 during Aleksander Kwaśniewski’s presidency, who maintained the decision about the liberalisation of the law and extended the right to abortion to cases of difficult material circumstances.

However, the law did not survive in this form for long. In 1997, as a result of a decision by the Constitutional Court, the possibility of terminating a pregnancy due to financial reasons was excluded. Since then, no changes to the law have been made. The issue of the legalisation of abortion would resurface in the pre-election promises of left-wing parties and from time to time in the media. Most often, however, it appeared in art projects or controversial cases related to the issue. Importantly, the discussion was never as heated as at the end of 2015.

The year of the “Black Protest”

In order to understand the situation, it is worth looking back to the autumn of 2015, when Law and Justice came to power. This is when a pro-life organisation submitted for review a draft of legislation completely banning abortion. The main argument of abortion opponents is that the current law did not protect children in the pre-natal period of their lives.

In spring 2016, the Polish Episcopate issued a statement, which on April 3rd was read in a number of Polish churches. In the letter the Church called for the total protection of human life from conception to death. When the statement was being read, in many churches people left in protest.

After the Episcopate voiced their position, Polish politicians began to comment on the issue. For example, the head of the ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, reassured the public that the representatives of his party all unequivocally supported the full abortion ban. At the same time, the Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, reaffirmed the position of the Catholic Church and called for a total abortion ban.

The words of the head of the government were not met without reaction. The action “send a hanger to the prime minister Beata Szydło” was launched on social media, and joined by more than 32,000 people. The main point of the action was to send iron hangers to the office of the prime minister, which in the United States are a symbol of illegal abortion. In the past, women used wired hangers to self-terminate unwanted pregnancies.

The hangers became a symbol of street protests organised by the activists and women’s rights defenders. In April demonstrations under the banner “Say No to torture of women” took place in 18 Polish cities. 

At the time three former Polish first ladies – Danuta Wałęsa, Jolanta Kwaśniewska and Anna Komorowska – called for the preservation of the 1993 compromise in a joint letter. Moreover, in May 2016, the Polish Public Opinion Research Centre conducted a survey, which showed that the majority of respondents was against the total abortion ban.

Another drop in the sea of disagreement was the submission of two citizen projects for parliamentary review. The first called for a total abortion ban, including in the three circumstances listed in the 1993 law. On top of that, the project included punitive measures for mothers, who decide to terminate pregnancy. The project of the committee “Stop Abortion” was signed by more than 450,000 people.

The second legislation draft, legalising abortion, was prepared by the Committee of Legislative Initiatives “Let’s Save Women”. According to the project, termination of pregnancy would be allowed until the end of the 12th week. It also included the implementation of a sexual education programme. The authors of the bill managed to gather 215,000 signatures in support of the initiative.

On September 23rd 2016, the Sejm considered both citizen projects. The parliamentarians decided to send the total abortion ban bill for further refinement and rejected the liberalisation project. This was the drop to make the glass overflow.

The so-called “Black Protest” began even before the next session of parliament on September 21st. In protest against the abortion ban, the demonstrators wore black clothes, and social media platforms were swamped with photographs with the hashtag #czarnyprotest.

After the decision of the Sejm on September 24th, the Polish Episcopate once again voiced their opinion. They stated that “every human life has a fundamental and inviolable value. Its protection is necessary regardless of world view”. However, the representative of the Church did not support penalties for women who performed abortion.

The main event of the protest movement was the nationwide women’s strike within the “Black Protest” against the possible total abortion ban, which took place on October 3rd 2016. On the protest day, women dressed in black took to the main squares of the biggest Polish cities. The largest demonstrations took place in Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Gdańsk and Poznań. As the participants told me, they were not calling for the legalisation of abortion, but to secure the compromise developed in the 1990s. The protests bore fruit. The developments that followed showed that the government began to look for alternative answers to the questions.

“For Life”

Three days after the protests, a majority in the Sejm rejected the legislation project of the “Stop Abortion” committee calling for the total ban and criminalisation of abortion. Importantly, on the day prime minister Beata Szydło announced a programme of support for mothers bringing up children with disabilities.

Moreover, in October statements by the head of Law and Justice Jarosław Kaczyński and Polish president Andrzej Duda followed, claiming all measures will be implemented to limit the number of abortions in Poland.

On November 2nd, the government submitted for parliamentary consideration a project titled “For Life”, providing support for women, who, regardless of the diagnosis of serious foetal disease, decided to give birth. After several days, the project was enacted by the parliament and signed by president Andrzej Duda.

The project dictates that from January 1st 2017, women who decide to keep and give birth to a child with genetic disease will receive a one-off payment of 4,000 zloty. The money will be paid only if the child is born alive. The project does not include situations when the child is stillborn or dies during labour.

It is understood that the “For Life” programme will cost the Polish state several hundred million zloty. The government claims that the means for the project have already been found. Part of the costs will be covered by the salaries fund.

To be continued?

The government programme appears to be a reaction to the protest movement and disagreement about the total abortion ban in Poland. For the time being, the programme has been criticised by both the supporters and the opponents of abortion. Among those with right-wing views who oppose the programme, the main argument voiced is that only a total abortion ban will save the lives of unborn children.

Despite this, in December Gazeta Wyborcza reported that in January 2017 the Sejm might vote on a new abortion ban, which is now under review by the Parliamentary Commission for Petitions. If the document prepared by the Polish federation movement for the protection of life receives a positive recommendation, it will soon be presented to the Speaker of the Parliament.

Even if the legislation draft is rejected, the topic of abortion will again return to the Polish media in 2017, as the “For Life” programme suits neither the supporters nor the opponents of the abortion ban. Against the programme are also those it relates to in the first place – mothers of children with disabilities.

Most likely the government will try to make amendments to the existing law or change its position, taking into account on the one hand the opinion of the Polish Episcopate, and, on the other, the position of the wider population and the protest movement, which will only become stronger in the case of another attempt to completely ban abortion.

As the results of the survey by the Polish Public Opinion Research Centre suggest, 62 per cent of Poles support the existing abortion law. 23 per cent of citizens support liberalisation of the legislation and only 7 per cent are in favour of tightening it.

Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

Svitlana Ovcharova – is a journalist, a graduate of theFaculty of Journalism and Political Science, University of Warsaw, and a student at the Centre for East European Studies, University of Warsaw. She writes for Ukrainian and Polish media and is currently working on an academic study on reproductive policy in Poland and Romania after 1989. 

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