Why Polish women are rallying for reproductive rights

Latest rallies comes after parliament, including some opposition politicians, rejected bill to liberalise abortion.

Women take part in a rally marking the first anniversary of the ''Black Protest'' against plans of changing the abortion law in Lublin
Abortion in Poland is illegal except in three special cases [File: Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Orzechowski via Reuters]

Krakow, Poland – On Wednesday, women across Poland plan to protest against attempts to further restrict access to abortion.

Polish Women’s Strike, the organiser, is a coalition of women’s rights groups, pro-democracy initiatives and individuals mobilising through social media, and expects thousands to join in at least 50 cities. 

In what has become something of a symbol of such protests in Poland, which is ruled by the anti-abortion Law and Justice party, the women plan to march dressed in black clothing.

“Deja Vu Polish Women on Strike”, the banner under which the current wave of protests is taking place, is the result of a January 10 vote in the lower chamber of the parliament.

Then, legislators chose to send a bill, introduced by the Life and Family Foundation group to ban the abortion of sick fetuses, for more work by parliamentary commissions.

On the same day, parliament rejected a bill titled Save Women, proposed by women’s rights groups, to liberalise abortion.

That measure advocated legalising abortion until the twelveth week of pregnancy and introducing sex education in schools, access to free contraception and prescription-free emergency contraception. It also included a ban on picket protests by the so-called pro-life movement displaying graphic images of fetuses, near hospitals and schools.

Abortion in Poland is illegal except in cases of rape, when there is irreparable damage to the fetus and if the pregnancy jeopardises the mother’s life.

The current law was introduced in 1993 following the fall of communism.

Some members of the liberal opposition voted against the recent bill to liberalise abortion; nine more votes in favour would have helped the measure enter the committee stage.

Aleksandra is among the women who will protest on Wednesday.

“Until recently, I rarely participated in such demonstrations,” she told Al Jazeera. “But the situation has changed, as the discussion about women’s rights has shifted right and the old-fashioned vision of women’s role in society is gaining ground.”

‘We have to act’

Many women feel betrayed by the opposition.

“We’re showing that we know that a complete abortion ban is on the table in Poland,” Marta Lempart of the Polish Women’s Strike told Al Jazeera. “After the rejection of the Save Women bill, we feel that we are on our own and we have to act.”

The demonstrations are part of a wider women’s rights movement, which grew out of Black Protest – a series of rallies against a ban on abortion in September 2016 proposed in a bill by the Ordo Iuris foundation, a Christian NGO.

Then, demonstrators wore black clothes and some carried black umbrellas, metal hangers or red gloves.

When in 2015, the [right-wing] Law and Justice [party] came to power and began – quickly and brutally – to change the institutional landscape, destroying democracy, a mass grassroots mobilisation began,” said Elzbieta Korolczuk, a Polish sociologist from Sodertorn University in Sweden.

“From the beginning, it was clear that women constitute a large part of this movement, as they realised that the quality of democracy will have an impact on their rights,” she told Al Jazeera.

Krakow’s March of Fury on March 8, 2017, gathered close to 8,000 participants [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera] 
Krakow’s March of Fury on March 8, 2017, gathered close to 8,000 participants [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera] 

The decision by Law and Justice to cut state subsidies for IVF and the fact that pro-life movements have support among the ruling party have spurred activism.

In 2016, Ordo Iuris gathered signatures under a citizen initiative for a bill which would ban abortion in all the cases it was currently allowed. The group backed five-year prison sentences for women who decided to end their pregnancy.

“Importantly, the [Ordo Iuris] bill referred to the ‘murder of an unborn child’ which would have effectively eliminated prenatal diagnosis, as some methods it uses may cause miscarriage,” Korolczuk said.

“The percentage of such cases is small – between one and three – but the danger exists. Thus, many doctors stated that if the bill is voted through, they would not continue with prenatal tests as they would risk up to three years of imprisonment.”

The Ordo Iuris bill replicated laws in El Salvador and Nicaragua where women who miscarry often serve prison sentences, charged with murder.

“This caused a huge outrage of women, including those who were not in favour of legalisation, but felt that the bill violated their dignity and agency,” Korolczuk said.

Mass mobilisation

A women’s strike on October 3, 2016, in response to Ordo Iuris’ proposal – which was rejected in the end – was supported by the opposition who saw the bill as part of a wider attack against progressive forces.

Almost 100,000 people rallied, according to police statistics, with attendance also high in small towns where people are less likely to express their political views due to fear of exclusion.

When it comes to the scale of women's involvement and the power of the movement, Poland is a positive exception. Maybe because we have something to fight for, the movement is very diverse, strong and capable of large-scale mobilisation.

by Elzbieta Korolczuk, sociologist

In neighbouring countries, women face fewer constraints in terms of reproductive rights.

In Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Baltic states, abortion is legal, although not infrequently politicised.

“When it comes to the scale of women’s involvement and the power of the movement, Poland is a positive exception,” said Korolczuk, the sociologist. “Maybe because we have something to fight for, the movement is very diverse, strong and capable of large-scale mobilisation.”

Source: Al Jazeera