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You’ll never walk alone

The changes in Poland’s abortion law were set in motion by PiS and the judges that it installed. Where the debate ends on this matter will be up to a new generation of Polish women.

March 12, 2021 - Małgorzata Kopka-Piątek - Articles and Commentary

Women's Strike in Warsaw, October 30th 2020. Photo: Can Ayaz flickr.com

Aleja Szucha 12a – the location of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal. Here, a spontaneous protest appeared on the day of a court ruling concerning the country’s new abortion law. A growing crowd stood together in silence as if at a funeral. They carried candles, symbols of grief for women’s freedom in the country. The atmosphere was gloomy. On the other side of the street, a group of women from the All-Poland Women’s Strike took up their positions with a large banner. Suddenly, this banner and the group holding it were in the middle of the street marching forward. According to the organisers of the strike, the slogan “Wypier…ć!” (F…off!) was directed at the authorities and all those who had contributed to the near total ban on abortions in Poland.

The current law on abortion was introduced in 1993. This provided for only three premises for legal abortion (serious foetal defects, threats to the woman’s life or health or pregnancy as a result of an illegal act, such as rape or incest). It was one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. In 2019, there were 1,110 legal abortion procedures recorded in the country. In Podkarpackie Voivodeship, in the southeast, this was another year in a row when no such procedures were performed by a hospital in the region. The so-called “conscience clause” allows Polish doctors to deny a woman access to surgery. In such a situation, legal obligations to direct patients towards other medical facilities are often ignored by medical authorities. This is the same clause that gives gynaecologists the right to deny prescriptions for hormonal birth control. Although these problems have caused public anger, women from larger cities can often find another doctor.

Meanwhile, women from smaller towns often find it difficult to access what would normally be considered basic medical care. Restrictive laws, pressure from the church and societal acceptance of these strict outlooks have made abortion an almost completely taboo topic in the country. As a result, the whole burden of coping with an unwanted pregnancy has been pushed onto the shoulders of women. According to the Federation for Women and Family Planning, between 80,000 and 200,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies each year. The exact number is not known due to the prevalence of illegal procedures. Many of these are performed outside of Poland in countries such as Germany or Slovakia. The “Abortion Dream Team” [A Polish group that provides support for women through information campaigns and finances travel to abortion clinics abroad – editors note] helps in many of these cases with assistance from similar organisations across Europe.

Last autumn following the publication of the verdict, which has been questioned by several legal authorities, spontaneous protest broke out across the entire country. Crowds took to the streets of Warsaw, Wrocław, Poznań, Łódź and Katowice. This was expected as these are large cities. However, the fact that crowds gathered in places like Działdowo, Lwówek Śląski or Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski came as a surprise to many. For many readers these will be new names, places that not all Polish people would be able to locate on a map. The people who live in these places are not regulars when it comes to strikes, protests or demonstrations. It was clear that something had changed, with smaller and larger crowds filling streets and market squares. These groups also gathered in front of the local offices of PiS (Law and Justice) MPs. The protesters were mainly women, their partners, mothers, grandmothers and sometimes also fathers. It is these people who deserve the greatest attention. They had the courage to be the first to come out and show their objection.

Anger was a common feature in the streets. The protesters not only disagreed with the tightening of abortion laws but also everything that the authorities have done in recent years to limit women’s liberties and civil rights. Amidst the crisis, there was a widespread fear that freedom of choice may be challenged by the government even in the case of irreversible foetal defects. People now fear that women may not be told everything about their pregnancy even if they do not want an abortion. For example, will they have access to prenatal care? Will the doctor tell them the truth if a serious illness is suspected? Would family members accept such a fate for their daughters or granddaughters?

Emotions find their outlet in strong words and curses fall among the slogans. Whilst these swear words are otherwise quite common in everyday language, Polish provides these outbursts with a rich scale and many grammatical forms. However, when these curses come from the mouths of young women, they often seem to cause offence. This has become an issue worthy of criticism and condemnation. This is another attempt to infantilise women, as even the language of the protest must be acceptable to the mostly male talking heads in the media. The language on the street has its own set of rules, with more leniency shown compared to the lecture hall or workplace. However, for some reason it is still not appropriate for women, even in the streets. The strong language has also been criticised for contributing to a lack of proper dialogue. In a way, this is true, as there is no room for civilised dialogue anymore. The measure of oppression and disrespect directed towards citizens and women has changed. This oppression is now focused on abortion but it is no longer just about that. The protests for women’s rights have become a more general outlet for people to express frustration, dissatisfaction and disagreement with the actions of the government. This is why one of the most popular slogans on the streets became “Jeb..ć PiS!” (F… PiS!), which is written as ***** ***.

The protesters turned out to be quite creative with their slogans, with many of them referring to literature and movies. Some were a play on words that are difficult to convey in other languages. This new language of the younger generation, with its own metaphors, is at times difficult to understand for the older generation. It is full of humour and not always serious. At the same time, it shows determination in the quest to gain full respect for rights and freedoms. The authorities have not shown much sense of humour. They sent in excessively large groups of police that were ordered to use direct force. This was wholly disproportionate to the potential threat presented by the protesters. The peaceful marches turned into a game of cat and mouse. The blockades set up by police at 50 metre intervals forced the organisers to constantly change their plans. Batons and pepper spray were often used by the police. In Warsaw, almost every protest ends with arrests and hour-long interrogations in police stations far away from the capital. In smaller places there is often a different price to pay. For example, people have faced a formal reprimand from their school principal or other superior. Others have been banned from participating in lectures for displaying the strike symbol on their computer or on social media. Some have even been subject to summons to the prosecutor’s office, fines and lawsuits.

There is a debate regarding the origins of this different kind of protest. Many point to the earliest “Black Protests” from 2016, during the first attempts to change the law. These involved many women, especially younger women, and other people who had not previously participated in mass protests. Much of the narrative surrounding women’s rights changed with The Left (Lewica) political party entering the Polish parliament in 2019. The symbolic beginning of this new atmosphere of protest was a solidarity demonstration held on August 7th 2020. This followed the arrest of Margot, an LGBTQ+ activist. Through these actions, Poland’s legendary solidarity returned to the country’s streets and entered the protest culture of the new generation. Protest action was organised at a grassroots level in a spontaneous and peaceful manner. The Women’s Strike repeatedly stressed that while it operates a help desk and coordination centre, it is up to local groups to decide what actions will take place and where.

The self-help is extensive, with the streets full of volunteers handing out tea or giving medical aid to anyone beaten by the police. In case anyone is apprehended and interrogated, the Szpila collective and similar groups are ready to offer legal assistance late into the night. A phone number is handed out at every demonstration in case someone finds themselves in trouble with the police. These are new customs for the Polish streets, tested by youth during the climate protests and borrowed from friends in other countries. The message “you’ll never walk alone”, which Margot was the first to hear loud and clear, has since been repeated on the streets and in the souls of the protesters. It is a generational experience that will go on to influence political decisions, social attitudes and life choices of many people. While nothing will happen tomorrow, these experiences will bring change at some point in the future.

The latest poll in the weekly Polityka shows that some 57 per cent of Polish women aged 18-24 supported the full liberalisation of abortion. At the same time, 29 per cent want a return to the previous law, which is mistakenly believed to be a compromise. For many mothers and aunts these numbers are incomprehensible. The generational divide is significant. There is also a geographical divide in the country. For instance, 83 per cent of respondents were in favour of liberalisation in the West Pomeranian Voivodeship. This contrasts with just 27 per cent in Podkarpackie. Even in this PiS bastion, however, the result seems to challenge perceptions of support for the party’s actions among its traditional electorate. Another significant indicator of societal change is the new position of the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) on the issue. For many years in government the party viewed the subject of abortion as a “hot potato”. Allowing for a pregnancy to be terminated at the woman’s request up to the 12th week “in particularly difficult conditions and after medical and psychological consultations” is a clear breakthrough. This has helped to challenge mental barriers and uncertainty that are especially prevalent among parents and grandparents. This is yet another important step on the path towards a society in which Polish women will never walk alone.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Małgorzata Kopka-Piątek is a Germanist and political scientist at the Institute of Public Affairs where she manages the Europe program. In her free time she works for women in international politics. Co-author of Will Women Save the World? A Feminist Foreign Policy.

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