As of autumn 2020, abortion was only legal in three cases in Poland. The pregnancy could be legally terminated if one of the following conditions is met: (1) The pregnancy poses a threat to a woman’s life or health. (2) The pregnancy was the result of the “prohibited act” (rape). or (3) it was very likely that the fetus was severely and irreversibly affected and / or had a life threatening disease. On October 22, 2020, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that the third condition no longer applies. In response to that decision, and amid a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Poland saw some of its biggest protests since the fall of communism.
The protests were organized by the civil society movement “Strajk Kobiet”. The organization has been active for more than four years and combats the ongoing state affront to women’s rights. In 2016, the lower house of the Polish parliament rejected a proposal to liberalize the Polish abortion law. Instead, she continued to work on the proposal of a conservative anti-electoral group to ban abortion entirely. In response, a nationwide protest called “Black Monday” was organized. More than 200,000 people gathered. The name “Black Monday” referred to the Icelandic women’s strike in 1975 when 90% of Icelandic women took a day off (they did not go to their paid jobs or do housework). Although the conservative anti-election proposal was rejected, the movement remained active and has since become a global phenomenon. In March 2018 the international women’s strike took place in 60 countries around the world. Since then, the struggle for women’s rights between conservative and liberal Poles has continued.
The relentless attempts to ban abortion could be the most visible effect of a highly conservative, patriarchal culture. However, proposals like these do not exist in a vacuum. Similar to other populist and right-wing governments, Polish officials unite in their affront to all things “gender”. The ruling party PiS is known for various sexist statements. The current Minister of Education, Przemysław Czarnek, also a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, claims that gender is an ideology, not a science, but a “false vision of man”. Czarnek also commented on reproduction before assuming his ministerial role:
If you have your first child at age 30, how many of those children can you have? These are the consequences of telling women not to do what God has called them to do.
The search for an abortion in Poland is also difficult because of “conscientious objection”. Since 1996, doctors have been able to legally refuse to perform an abortion because of a conflict of conscience with their Catholicism. When this clause was invoked, they had to name another doctor who they knew would be ready to help. This reference to an alternative contact has not been given since 2020. This forces women to rely on informal networks and their own contacts. Doctors can also refuse to prescribe contraceptives and the morning-after pill.
Not surprisingly, the Polish government recently announced that it was preparing to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention. This human rights treaty focuses on strategies to reduce violence against women. In the eyes of the Polish government, the Convention promotes “gender ideology” and should therefore be dropped.
The transnational phenomenon of a multitude of actors opposing what they term “gender ideology”, “genderism”, “cultural Marxism”, “homosexual propaganda” or “gender theory” is well illustrated by feminist scholars and commentators. While the roots of this discourse can be traced back to the Vatican, the past decade has seen a marked backlash against women’s rights in a number of countries. Protests against marriage equality, reproductive justice, gender mainstreaming, transgender rights or sexual education have been linked to a surge in populism and a larger systemic political crisis of the liberal order.
In the context of Central and Eastern Europe, the “gender ideology” is often referred to as a neocolonial project and / or a successor to Marxism / communism / socialism. The Polish priest and professor Dariusz Oko claimed that the “gender ideology (…) is worse than communism and the Nazis”. In other cases, gender is seen as an instrument of colonization that the West can use to enforce its values in the region. This is particularly evident with actors against the EU. This mixture of lifting the historical trauma of the totalitarian past and feeding on contemporary anti-EU feelings makes the “anti-gender collective” particularly powerful in Poland.
Although the protests by women in Poland are not new, the current demonstrations differ from those of previous years and not only because of their scale and international publicity. First, they occurred during a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. In spring 2020, when the legislative proposal on the de facto ban on the right to abortion was being discussed in the Polish parliament, women also protested. However, the strikes during the first wave had a different character: due to the Covid-19 restrictions in Poland, protesters placed black umbrellas and banners in windows and balconies, organized car blockades, and carried banners in socially distant queues to shops. In the autumn the situation escalated – Poland was only one step away from the actual abortion ban and people took to the streets risking their own lives and those of their loved ones.
With the number of new COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in Poland, the Strajk Kobiet government blamed demonstrations. Former opposition presidential candidate Rafal Trzaskowski argued that the government timed its decision on this controversial law to prevent its mistakes in dealing with the pandemic. Another possible explanation is that the government anticipated the severity of the pandemic, which prevented people from protesting. Significantly, the legal proposal was sent directly to the tribunal (which could mean an almost immediate ban) and the process did not follow the standard legislative procedure.
Second, support for the ruling Law and Order Party (PiS) is waning. The recent presidential elections have shown the extent of the division between a more conservative and a liberal Poland. The ongoing protests have further damaged the position of PiS as its support has dropped from the usual 40-45% to an all-time low of 30%. Another confirmation of Poles’ dissatisfaction is a recent study that claims that 70% of Poles support the demonstrations organized by Strajk Kobiet, while only 13% of those polled took part in the protests. This shows that street protesters represent only a small percentage of all those who disagree with the proposed changes to the abortion law. The study also shows that while women participate in the protests more often than men, support for the strikes is similar for both.
The Polish government was undoubtedly surprised by the scale of the protests. The tribunal’s judgment has not yet been published, although the deadline for its publication has already passed. This is very irregular. In the meantime, two other legislative proposals were also discussed, which the government saw as a compromise. Among them is the President’s proposal to protect children with Down syndrome from abortion. Strajk Kobiet firmly rejects this proposal and provides 13 postulates which, apart from abortion on demand, e.g. Rights, climate and education of the LGBT community. According to the government’s latest statement, they intend to wait until the tribunal publishes its justification to publish the judgment of the tribunal. It is not known when this will happen. Uncertainty about the legal situation led some hospitals to declare the discontinuation of the abortion while others informed that they would not stop the abortion until after the verdict was published.
The government is in a difficult position not only because of its failure to deal with the pandemic and protests against proposals for the abortion law, but also because of the almost constant dispute with the EU over the legal rules. Poles don’t just take to the streets to oppose abortion laws, they want to defend their freedom and democracy.
In this awkward position, the government could just accept the president’s proposal and call it a compromise and wait for people to stop protesting. However, the scale of the protests and the persistence of the Polish people clearly prevent them from making hasty decisions. Much will depend on the determination of the protesters during the worsening pandemic and a winter that makes their struggle much more difficult. The question is whether this social discontent can persist until the next general election in 2023. After all, the situation in Poland is a symptom of the global backlash against women’s rights in the region and around the world. At the same time, it shows the power of peaceful protest and the importance of feminist solidarity.
Further reading on E-International Relations