Protests erupted across Poland on January 27 after the country’s Constitutional Tribunal went forward with a divisive new law concerning access to abortion. Defying coronavirus lockdowns, thousands of protestors took to the streets in the major cities to demand a change to the law and to express their collective anger toward the decision from the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS).
The January protests and days that followed are only the latest in a movement that sprung up in October to oppose restrictions on abortion in Poland. After mass protests following the initial decision, the Polish government agreed to delay the implementation of this new law, waiting until late in the evening to move forward with it.
Under PiS, a far-right party with strong ties to the Catholic Church in Poland, the new abortion law would outlaw procudres in cases where fetal abnormalities are detected. While this decision preserves abortion access in cases of rape or incest and cases where there is a threat to the mother’s life, both of these represent a tiny fraction of the abortions performed in the country. Of the 1,100 terminations in the country last year, 10,74 of them were due to fetal abnormalities. Even before this ruling, Poland already had one of the strictest sets of abortion laws in the European Union; with this new law, the county has effectived passed a near-total ban on the service.
Abortion rights advocates fear that this restriction will result in more Polish women seeking underground, unsafe options for terminations or travelling abroad to obtain abortions. A Polish lawyer explained her fear that “those who are seeking an abortion will go abroad if they have the means, or order pills to their door… this entails risks [because] if someone buys [the pills] for them – or even hands them the money or assists in any way – that person may face criminal charges.”
Effectively, Polish women will have to either figure out the means to go abroad, or be left to deal with the problem on their own. This puts women who are economically disadvantaged or unable to travel in a precarious position, choosing between financial stability, high risk or death. Under the previous law, it is estimated that 200,000 Polish women have illegally performed abortions or traveled abraod to recieve them. This number will surely climb higher as access is restricted further and hospitals refuse to perform abortions. The fear that legal charges might be brought against those who assist with abortions had already caused certain hospitals in Poland to end terminations for cases of fetal abnormalities months ago.
While the ruling was the impetus for mass demonstrations, there is broader anger among Poles at the ruling party for its efforts to undermine democratic values, pass increasingly restrictive laws and for a perceived failure in handling the pandemic and vaccine rollout — another massive public health concern.
Additionally, under PiS, the independence of the Polish court system has been systematically attacked, and Polish judges have been barred from implementing European Union law in the country. PiS’ control of the Polish Parliament has advanced an ultra-conservative agenda that human rights advocates and liberals fear is pushing the country closer to oppressive and autocratic rule.
Since coming into power in 2015, PiS has attacked civil liberties and supported harsh crackdowns on LGBTQ rights in the country. Recently, dozens of towns across Poland have declared themselves “LGBT-free Zones.” Amid state-sanctioned homophobia and anti-LGBT elements in the deeply embedded Catholic Church, LGBT Poles are also on the front lines of the culture war in Poland between liberal democratic supporters and those who support the right wing ideology of PiS.
Polish backsliding has not gone unnoticed in the EU; in November 2019, an EU ruling decided that a PiS-supported change to the court system “does not satisfy the requirements of judicial independence under EU law.” In August 2020, the EU also stripped several towns in Poland of their funding from the EU Town Twinning program. However, Poland is largely immune from real EU punishment due to its close relationship with Hungary, another EU member state that has seen significant backsliding and an erosion of democratic values. With Hungary and Poland may veto any measure that might reprimand the other, it is unlikely that the EU will be able to bring Warsaw back into the fold anytime soon.
The passage of the latest abortion law sparked the largest protests in Poland since the fall of Communism in 1989. Among those marching in the crowds of Poles outraged at the latest attack on female bodily autonomy are those who have deep fears about the influence of the conservative ruling party on the rule of law in Poland. So long as the the rightwing actors in Polish civil society continue to push the country further down the path of autocracy, human rights advocates and marginalized groups will rise to meet them.