Armed with red paint and defying coronavirus restrictions, hundreds of Poles rallied in Warsaw on Thursday against a controversial court verdict imposing a near-total ban on abortion.
Protesters also took to the streets elsewhere in the staunchly Catholic EU member state in a second night of outrage after the Constitutional Court ruling came into effect on Wednesday.
The move means that all abortions in Poland are now banned except in cases of rape and incest, or when the mother’s life or health are considered to be at risk.
“We’re gathering here because this state thinks it can take away our freedom,” Marta Lempart, a leading protest organiser from the Women’s Strike group told the crowd at the Warsaw rally.
Many wore face masks with the red lightning symbol used by pro-choice activists, lit red flares and held up signs declaring “We’ve Had Enough” and “This Means War”.
Some protesters spilled cans of red paint in front of the fenced-off Constitutional Court. Several people were detained by police after entering the premises.
Women’s Strike posted on social media that among those detained was one of the group’s leaders, Klementyna Suchanow.
The court verdict is supported by Poland’s right-wing and ultra-Catholic government, which gave it legal force by publishing it in the Journal of Laws on Wednesday.
The country was rocked by huge demonstrations when the verdict was first issued in October, following a request by members of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS).
The October 22 ruling said abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities were “incompatible” with the constitution.
Predominantly Catholic Poland already has some of Europe’s most restrictive laws on abortion.
There are fewer than 2,000 legal abortions every year and women’s groups estimate that an additional 200,000 women have an abortion either illegally or abroad.
The government has defended the verdict, saying it will halt “eugenic abortions”, referring to the termination of foetuses diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, but human rights groups have said it will force women to carry non-viable pregnancies.
Meanwhile, activists are reporting that Polish women with scheduled abortions are calling advice services in panic, as the new restrictions take effect.
“I picked up about 10 of these calls during the night, ” Krystyna Kacpura, director of Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) told the Reuters news agency.
“They were (from women but) also from doctors and gynaecologists asking if this is in place, what should they do. ‘The patient is ready for the procedure – should I send her home?'”
Abortions Without Borders, a support group helping women get abortions abroad, said it had received at least 30 calls from women by noon on Thursday.
Justyna Wydrzynska, a member of the support team, told Reuters she expected to have at least 100 calls by the end of the day.
“You are not alone, we are with you and we are doing all we can so that everyone who contacts us gets all the support they need as soon as possible,” she said.
Polish conservatives who supported the new limitations rejoiced as the ruling came into force on Thursday, arguing that they had finally secured equal human rights for unborn children and were shielding women from the trauma of abortion.
“There’s a Polish saying that it’s better to have 10 children on your arm than one on your conscience, and I think this is part of our philosophy to protect life,” said Maria Kurowska, a member of parliament representing socially conservative grouping United Poland, allied with the ruling nationalists.
Supporters of the ruling insisted that it is now up to the Polish government to provide additional support to families that have to care for disabled people and sick children.