Polish abortion laws are some of the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is completely banned apart from in a few exceptional circumstances. It is allowed on grounds of rape, incest, if there is a severe health risk to the pregnant woman, or if the foetus is severely deformed and has no chance of survival.
Doctors also have a conscience clause; they can sign an agreement saying they will not perform an abortion, but they have to direct women to another doctor who will do the procedure. There are also many cases of women being directed from one hospital to another because doctors who do not want to do the procedure.
Abortion law is an emotive topic in Poland. Every couple of years a dramatic case will become a talking point — of a teenager getting pregnant for example. Feminists will push for change and then there will be a backlash from religious groups wanting to restrict the law. Every now and then there have been feminist voices saying abortion is a right, but the much more dominant voices are those of the Catholic Church and far right groups claiming that abortion is evil and that it should be banned in all circumstances.
Poland is the most Catholic country in Europe. A particularly conservative form of Catholicism is a big influence in politics and in everyday life. Until recently feminism has been limited to middle-class academic circles and hasn’t had a lot of influence. There isn’t really a generational divide on this issue. There has been equal support for abortion among younger and older women. But it tends to be men who have become more conservative in recent years. There were men on the protests, but we also saw many reactionary comments in the media from men.
There is definitely a divide between town and country, with some big cities, especially those with universities, being more progressive. On the other hand, some cities in east Poland, like Kraków, are conservative. Small country villages are more conservative. That is why it was very powerful to see the influence of the strike reaching everywhere.
It is estimated that there are as many as 50,000 “backstreet” illegal abortions in Poland every year. Many more women go abroad for an abortion. There is a massive underground “movement” of women obtaining medical abortion pills. That is not being organised in a conscious way; it is people making money by selling the pills, and code words for the trade being used on the internet. There are groups of women outside Poland who deliver abortion pills into the country. There have been abortion pills delivered by drones from the German side of the border!
This was a practical and symbolic action. Most women who are desperate for an abortion will probably be able to get one somehow, but it is not always safe. It is a class issue as much as a gender and health issue. Women with more money can afford to go to expensive illegal clinics and have a fairly safe procedure. Or can afford to go to other European countries. Poorer women are either forced to go through with the pregnancy or resort to dangerous methods. A number of women every year either die, or become disabled or have long-term health issues.
Some Polish women come to the UK to have an abortion for free. But there has been a backlash about that – articles in the Daily Mail condemning these women who are having a life-saving procedure. It wasn’t always this way. Up until 1993 abortion in Poland was technically allowed for social and economic reasons — in practice “on demand”. Any woman who wanted an abortion could have one for free.
Because Poland had poor access to contraception and poor sex education, the country had one of the highest ratios of abortions to population in the world. Most of society supported this – it was just common sense. A lot of women had an abortion at some point in their lives, but it wasn’t a topic that was discussed. Then in 1993 the current law came in — the result of an agreement between the state and the church. In a so-called compromise, abortion was outlawed apart from the very specific circumstance. The church got a lot of influence – in schools, in family law and other areas of everyday life.
One study suggested that this was because Poland never had a feminist movement in the same way as western Europe. Women never fought for the right to have an abortion. It had always been framed as a public good, as something for society’s health and safety, never because it was a woman’s right to chose.
Public opinion has changed again. Whereas 20 years ago most people preferred a more liberal law, currently more people are asking for the law to be more restrictive. As in many places in Europe we have seen the rise of the conservative right. Sometimes they use some of the language of the left – on welfare rights for instance. But on social questions it is extremely conservative.
We have one of the most right-wing governments in Europe and not a single centre-left party is represented in our parliament. The attack on Poland’s limited access to abortion came from a conservative group of lawyers. They got up a petition proposing to outlaw abortion in all circumstances. That got 400,000 signatures and won them the right to a debate in parliament.
The ruling Law and Justice Party and the prime minister, a woman, Beata Szydło, came out in favour of it. This provoked the first big wave of protests. I was in Warsaw and Kraków at the time [April 2016] and people were talking of nothing else. Within two days, with my comrades from Razem, Young Labour Women and other groups, we managed to gather 300 people for a protest outside the Polish embassy. Similar protests were held in other European capital and this was quite widely reported in Poland.
An association of Polish feminists wrote a counter petition. The proposal was to legalise abortion on demand up to the second trimester of pregnancy and also to introduce free contraception and for sex education in schools. They got 200,000 signatures and a parliamentary debate. It was very quickly voted down but it got the debate widened out, and showed that there is so much more we can be talking about and could be demanding.
Over the summer there were some smaller protests but the law was going through parliament and looked like a real prospect. At this point Razem, my party, came up with the idea of the woman’s strike. A date was fixed for Monday 3 October. The idea was for women not to go to work, to classes, and to not do housework. Many were at first quite sceptical. Maybe it would be just a small group of middle-class women who can afford to take the day off. But it was a hugely successful initiative.
One estimate is that seven million women participated, possibly that is somewhat exaggerated, but I have seen pictures of streets, big stores and shopping centres completely empty. It was the biggest mobilisation in Poland for decades. This protest got a couple of individual minister and then the whole government to withdraw its support.
The movement spread in different ways – through social media, through word of mouth in workplaces and schools in community centres, and even in churches – people handing out flyers and talking to each other. It was very organic, it was a genuine uprising. It was a matter of people being scared and realising that the change was about to become reality. The first protests were very moderate in their demands, talking about keeping the current so-called compromise, and about abortion being rare.
As the movement progressed it became more and more radical, the view that maybe abortion should be a right came more to the forefront and into the media. At the beginning the myth that abortion was not needed for “good women” was being said, but that idea was effectively challenged. Unfortunately the trade union movement in Poland is very weak and also quite conservative and has not formed part of the protests. In fact we don’t have lot of activism in Poland at all. Doctors’ unions did not take sides and weren’t part of the abortion debate.
The broad left has also been very weak. The old centre left recently ran on a platform of free market and lower taxes. About 18 months ago Razem [Together] emerged, inspired by parties like Podemos and Syriza. They are trying to be the new socialist progressive force, but also careful not to use the old left-wing language, as it is really discredited in Poland.
You will, for instance, rarely hear the term socialism in Poland; it is associated with Stalinism. Razem do not openly call themselves anti-capitalist, but many of their members are. Their approach is about trying to revive the trade union movement, connecting grass roots struggles of people fighting for issues like social housing and health care. Also supporting the LGBT movement which until recently worked very separately. At the moment it is polling about 4%.
There is a Razem group in London. It is quite strong abroad, because a lot of left-wing Polish migrants feel able to express their views more easily outside the country, they feel less isolated. But there are not a lot of spaces where Polish migrant workers can get together. In the Polish cultural centre in London for instance there are screening of films and sport, but it is not really political. But maybe there will be more organising with the migrant backlash.
However I think there will be a lasting impact on political consciousness from these struggles. A lot of people who have never been involved in politics have been mobilised for the strike and going on protests. It has been six months of smaller and bigger actions.
The word feminism is being said much more frequently. It will be long struggle for abortion rights. Whether it will spread to other issues that affect women is much harder to say. There is a link with general opposition to the current government.
Since the ruling party got into power around a year ago there have been protests – by the so-called movement for the defence of democracy. That was a middle-class liberal movement for defending democracy but also the free market. There is more dissatisfaction in society, but is very varied.
Personally I think the attempts to rebuild the trade union movement give us hope. Society is now more polarised than ever. The consensus compromise that we have had for the past 20 years is dead. We have the hard right calling for a complete ban, but we also have an emerging modern pro-choice movement and an awakening of Polish feminism.
And this movement has already inspired women in other countries. We have seen similar “black protests” in South Korea. In Argentina there has been a women’s strike against gender violence with protestors wearing black.