The Polish government is terrified of women. Its efforts to introduce a total abortion ban have created a massive backlash with hundreds of thousands of people, mainly young women, demonstrating, taking days off and wearing black at school, college or work.
The draft law had proposed a prison term of up to five years for women who had an abortion.
The movement against the total ban has been driven forward by various women’s organisations, a Facebook network of over 100,000 members called “Gals for gals” and the newly formed left social democratic party Razem (Together) which got an impressive 3.6 percent in the last elections, but not enough to enter parliament.
The turning point that forced the government to retreat was the “women’s strike” on 3 October — called Black Monday after the colour of the movement. According to police figures, which are notoriously grossly understated, there were 143 separate protests throughout the country with 98,000 people taking part.
Almost at once the government caved in. They fell over themselves to reassure women that there would be no penalisation and no total ban.
The Catholic conservative governing party Law and Justice (PiS) has a major dilemma. The prospect of a continuing mass movement on the street horrifies its leaders. At the same time the party needs to ingratiate itself with the church hierarchy, which mobilises support at election time. PiS is also anxious not to be outflanked by populists and fascists.
Shortly after the ban was overturned PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski, who pulls the strings of the prime minister and the president, declared that the government would “strive to ensure that even cases of very difficult pregnancies, when the child is destined to die, heavily deformed, should still end in birth so that the child can be baptised, buried and have a name.”
The reaction of the movement was immediate. There was a demonstration of hundreds of people outside Kaczynski’s house. This led to another series of denials by PiS politicians.
Kaczynski’s statement shows that the government may want to introduce a harsher law banning abortion when the foetus is damaged.
On paper women can currently have abortions only in the case of rape and incest, a badly deformed foetus or if the woman’s life or health is threatened. The “health” part is very strictly interpreted and leads to lack of proper medical care for pregnant women.
Pressure has been put on doctors to sign a conscience clause, which in effect means that abortions in many areas are unavailable even when the law permits. In a famous case a hospital director refused to allow any of his doctors to perform an abortion, forcing a woman to give birth to a child with an open skull. The baby died after a few days.
Officially there are only between 1,000 and 2,000 legal abortions a year in Poland. Women’s organisations estimate there are over 100,000 underground abortions a year, some illegal and some performed in countries with more liberal laws such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Germany.
The cost of having an abortion “underground” can be well over a monthly wage. This of course means that the current anti-abortion law hits the poorest women hardest.
Protesters on the streets don’t want to stop at defeating the total abortion ban. The slogans that dominate call for a woman’s control over her own body and full abortion rights. This has pushed the movement forward.
Not everyone is happy with this. There is no left wing at all in the Polish parliament, not even a moderate social democracy. The two main opposition parties are neoliberal and want to inhibit the movement from going beyond overturning the total ban.
The young women on the streets are much more radical. It has been their willingness to come out in vast numbers which is shaping the movement.
Some trade unions have supported the protests. These include one of the big three union federations the OPZZ, the biggest single union, the ZNP teachers’ union, and the metalworkers’ union. This must be seen as a beginning. The unions’ members have to be mobilised.
3 October was a rainy day. Umbrellas were out in force and have become the symbol of the protests. On 24 October the streets in many cities were again filled by protesters — with the slogan, “We will not fold our umbrellas”.