Thousands of women across Poland boycotted their work and classes in the “Women Strike” campaign against a proposed absolute ban on abortion. © Getty Images

Poles Refuse to Put a Good Face on a Bad Game

On October 3, “Black Monday,” thousands of women dressed in black amassed in the streets of cities across Poland. Waving black flags and huddled under umbrellas in the rain, they were protesting a proposed ban on abortion. They—along with men—went on strike, boycotting work and school to express their opposition to legislation placing an absolute ban on abortion. Businesses, traffic, government and virtually everything else in Polish cities and some towns were disrupted by the strike. The stakes were high and the opposition fierce in the largely Catholic nation.

Access to legal abortion in Poland is extremely limited, due to the widespread use of conscientious objection among gynecologists, the right to avoid refer­ring patients to hospitals where obtaining an abortion would be possible and com­plicated and often unrealistic hospital procedures designed to postpone the procedure.

Consequently, the number of illegal abortions in Poland ranges from 100,000 to 150,000 every year. The quality of the procedure and a woman’s safety depend on her economic status. Those who are more resourceful and have enough financial resources may easily terminate a pregnancy abroad or in the abortion underground. Women from small towns and poorer areas often resort to so-called home methods or services offered by strangers, risking their health and lives.

Although the current law—the Act on Family Planning, Human Embryo Pro­tection and Conditions of Permissibility of Pregnancy Termination—is highly restrictive, in recent years there have been multiple attempts by Catholic and anti-choice organizations to restrict it even further. The last attempt took place in 2014, when the groups aimed to limit access to legal abortion in cases of genetic defect or severe, irreversible damage or life-threatening, incurable disease of the fetus. The attempt was unsuccessful. There wasn’t sufficient support in the parliament, and the draft law also faced huge opposition from the pro-choice movement. Furthermore, the politicians were reluctant to change the current law, which they called “a compromise,” even though nobody had cared about the opinion of women when it was intro­duced. It was a compromise between the politicians and the church hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that almost all the members of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) voted in favor of the restrictive draft law. It was a sign of what might happen to Polish women if the Law and Justice Party won the election and came to power.

Which is what happened. In October 2015, the Law and Justice Party won the parliamentary elections with a clear majority, leaving the ruling Civic Plat­form far behind. PiS was the one strong, conservative political party constantly arguing and competing against several smaller left-wing groups. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski seized this opportu­nity to take power. The party’s success was not affected by unification of the left, which realized shortly before the elections that uniting was the only strategy to gain control of parliament. However, it was too late for a reliable and credible campaign. The Law and Justice Party focused its campaign on social promises and improving economic con­ditions for Polish families. In this way PiS won over voters, in particular those among the least affluent parts of Polish society and those in economically disad­vantaged regions. Voters did not realize that the price for social assistance would be the loss of liberty, human rights vio­lations and a turn towards a dictatorship.

Immediately after taking office, the new minister of education banned non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from teaching comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, as she believed it led to the sexualization of young people. The new minister of health publicly announced that he was working on regulations aimed at with­drawing approval for the distribution of over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception. He called emergency contraception “contraceptive-abortifa­cient pills.” The appeal demanding with­drawal of emergency contraception from over-the-counter sales was signed by an association of Catholic doctors as well as other Catholic organizations. Both sex­uality education and emergency contra­ception are critical topics for the Polish Catholic church; these actions were seen as a form of “payback” for the support of the church during the elections.

For Polish women, it became too much; there has been an explosion of anger, outrage and determination to take action.

However, it was only a preview of what was to come. In April 2016, the Institute for Legal Culture, Ordo Iuris, whose main goal is to achieve the legal protec­tion of Christian principles and fight in defense of traditional values, presented a total ban on abortion for legislative approval in Poland. The former presi­dent of Ordo Iuris currently holds the office of deputy minister of foreign affairs, and is responsible for cooperation with international organizations. It is likely that the joint EU position in the United Nations final documents and res­olutions would no longer be supported. There is also reason to believe that Cen­tral and Eastern European countries will follow the direction of Poland, as it has always served as an example of progress and economic development for them.

The draft law, entitled “On universal protection of human life and education for family life,” prepared by Ordo Iuris, introduces the term “unborn child,” defined here as a human in the prenatal stage of development, and beginning at the moment of connection of female and male reproductive cells. The draft offers equal rights to both the fetus and the woman. Moreover, it considers an unborn child to be vulnerable, and the woman to be exactly the opposite. In addition to the total ban on abortion, the draft law introduces criminalization of up to five years of imprisonment for women (currently, women are not pun­ished for terminating a pregnancy), phy­sicians and anyone who provided assistance. In the case of miscarriage, an investigation might be initiated. If a court finds that a woman unintentionally contributed towards the death of the embryo/fetus, she may face up to three years of imprisonment.

Carrying the child to term and giving birth will be mandatory. Even if a woman is 11 years old. Even if the pregnancy results from a crime and the perpetrator is her own father. Women will be forced to give birth to severely ill children with mortal defects, or children who will die in tremendous pain for several hours, days or months after birth.

Additionally, the draft removes pro­visions on access to prenatal testing and provisions recognizing a woman’s right to information regarding the status of the fetus. The draft does not provide funding for contraception and intro­duces a total ban on emergency contra­ception and intrauterine devices. There is no sexuality education in the draft; instead, an “education for family life” curriculum is introduced, based on tra­ditional values and in line with the par­ents’ moral standards.

The consequences of introducing such regulations are easy to predict: The number of illegal abortions will not be reduced, but will instead take place even deeper underground. In cases of miscar­riage, the fear of negative legal conse­quences may prevent women from seeking professional medical help, which poses a threat to their lives and health. The draft law violates women’s rights to health, to privacy, to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and to their right to life.

Carrying the child to term and giving birth will be mandatory. Even if a woman is 11 years old. Even if the pregnancy results from a crime and the perpetrator is her own father.

For Polish women, it became too much; there has been an explosion of anger, outrage and determination to take action. Thousands of women of all ages took to the streets of Polish cities. Such a phenomenon of mass protest by women has never happened before. And the Catholic bishops reacted quickly and strongly. On Sunday, the day before the strike, many priests urged their congre­gants to “pray for protections of life from conception until natural death.” At the monastery of Częstochowa, local arch­bishop Waclaw Depo urged the faithful to attend a so-called white mass in white clothing in opposition to the black out­fits of the pro-choice protesters. Another archbishop, Marek Jędraszewski, said in a homily that the marches were “a modern manifestation of the civilization of death.”

As a counterweight to the Stop Abor­tion proposal, a newly formed citizens’ initiative called Save the Women sub­mitted a draft law liberalizing the restrictive Act from 1993. The draft law “On the women’s rights and conscious parenthood” offers women the opportu­nity to have legal and safe abortions, provides access to prenatal tests and full health care for pregnant women, gives broad access to modern contraception and involves comprehensive sexuality education from an early age.

Save the Women activists were aware that the draft law has no chance for implementation, as it has no political support in the Polish parliament and, in fact, was rejected in the first reading. However, it is hoped that the proposal will stimulate discussion on women’s reproductive rights in Poland and, to some extent, will prevent the introduc­tion of even more restrictive regulations prepared by the Stop Abortion initiative.

At the beginning of the campaign, the majority (more than 86 percent) of people were in favor of keeping the current law. However, women’s solidarity exceeded all expectations: More than 215,000 signa­tures were collected under the Save the Women draft. It is a remarkable success, considering the fact that the Save the Women initiative did not have any funds, churches or pulpits. Every day, hundreds of volunteers and NGO activists went out through the city streets and collected signatures. Many times, people col­lecting signatures were attacked by the Stop Abortion Initiative activists (signed cards were destroyed, tables upended and volunteers verbally abused).

The protests were organized in more than 20 cities across the country, including in smaller towns, where more people are active members of the church community than in the cities. However, it is clear that much work remains. Many of the women who joined the Black Protests stressed the need for better sex education and contra­ception accessibility while urging that the abortion law remain restrictive. In mid-October a popular young singer named Natalia Przybysz made a bold move by publicly admitting that she had obtained an abortion because she wasn’t ready for a third child. Many women who had participated in the women’s strike criticized her as “selfish.” The struggle for Polish women’s reproductive rights has only just begun and, clearly, has a long way to go.

Krystyna Kacpura is the executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning.

Anka Grzywacz has been a reproductive health advocate working to liberalize Polish abortion law for more than 10 years. Currently she works for the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning and is on the Catholics for Choice board of directors.

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