Polish women take to streets to protest against anti-abortion law

Submitted by Matthew on 5 October, 2016 - 12:38

Mags, a Birmingham-based activist with the left-wing Polish group Razem, spoke to Solidarity about the Polish women's strike against restrictions on abortion rights.


In April this year a legal institute in Poland called Ordo Iuris put forward draft legislation for a ban on abortion.

Currently, abortion on demand is not legal in Poland. It is permitted if a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, if there is a danger to the mother's health or if the foetus is permanently damaged or terminally ill. But it is difficult to get an abortion, because there is something called a “conscience clause” which allows doctors to refuse treatments which are not in line with their political or religious views. The legislation Ordo Iuris has put together would ban abortions in these three permitted circumstances.

In April, there was a wave of protests. In London we held one where lots of women's rights organisations joined us. For the first time the world heard about what was happening in Poland, and women's rights organisations around the world sent messages of solidarity.

Draft legislation was voted on in parliament last week. When we heard about the vote, a committee was created called “Save the Women”. They came up with alternative legislation which would not only legalise abortion on demand, but also introduce proper sex education and wider access to contraception.

Those two bills were also voted on in the parliament last week. The one legalising abortion and wider access to contraception and sex education was rejected in the first reading. The other one was voted in and passed to a parliamentary commission for further work. There is a real danger that this law could pass.

Razem started a campaign calling on people to spread the word about what was happening by dressing in black and posting pictures online with the slogan “black protest”. Many thousands participated. When the left bill was rejected people started calling for a national women's strike, like the one organised by women in Iceland 14 years ago, which paralysed the country.

The idea caught on. So, on Monday (3 October), Polish women will go on strike. [Thousands of Polish women did boycott work and took to the streets dressed in black. Government offices, universities and schools in 60 cities across the country shut for the day.]

Women are building support for the movement by printing posters, knocking on neighbours’ doors, talking to their families, and colleagues at work.

A few politicians, including mayors in two cities, have expressed support.

One of the biggest trade unions, Workers' Initiative National Union, openly expressed its support. But they legally cannot protect women who go on strike.

We don't know what will happen with the bill. With the party that's currently in power, anything could happen. We have seen open right-wing extremists having concerts in public spaces, with neo-Nazi bands, and the government doesn't react. There are radical right-wing organisations which have supporters in parliament.

We have heard that the ruling party, Law and Justice, might just come up with a new draft of the legislation, allowing abortion in the case of rape. But we can't trust them. So-called “pro-life” organisations say is that abortion should not be legal in cases where a foetus is damaged, because all children have a right to live, regardless of their health. But they do not take into account that not everyone is able to look after children with severe health problems.

We had a case last year where one mother wanted to get an abortion but the doctor kept postponing her abortion for so long that she eventually passed the legal time limit. The child to which she gave birth was missing half its brain and almost all its organs were damaged. It only lived for ten days. He was obviously proud of himself for saving the child's life. But the mother had to watch the child die. This is what we might all face.

Another danger is that it might be harder to get prenatal examinations for foetuses, because doctors might be scared of accidentally damaging the foetus and then face prosecution. With any miscarriage which seems “suspicious”, the mother might face prosecution. This happens in many countries, and the most extreme case is probably El Salvador. But the law which is being debated in Poland would render us similar to El Salvador, as it imposes sentences in such cases of up to five years.

Even now, women normally do not report rape. But if this bill passes women might find it even harder to report rape; if a woman gets pregnant as a result of the rape, she would be suspected of inventing the rape in order to access abortion.