The demonstrations happening across large cities in Poland are protests against further restrictions on access to abortion and reproductive rights. The decision to force women to give birth to a child — even if the foetus is severely defected — was taken by the Constitutional Court a few days ago. This triggered street protests. In response, thousands of women took to the streets to voice their dissent.
The decision of the Constitutional Court — which, like most institutions in Poland is controlled personally by Jarosław Kaczyński, founder of Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party (PIS)— is yet another act of war between two world views: the liberal view and the extremely conservative ideology imposed by the Catholic Church. In other words, two visions of civil liberties are clashing in Poland. And this conservative vision is one held by a large of society which constitutes the supporter base for PiS.
The dispute has been going on for years, and any progress always results in regression after a few years. According to many women, the issue of abortion was dealt with behind their backs, just after the country’s democratic turn of 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland. Shortly afterwards, the democratically-elected authorities — in order to gain the support of the Catholic Church to drive economic reforms — agreed to reinstate religious teaching in schools. They also accepted the so-called abortion compromise. Under this new compromise, abortion would be allowed only in special situations (such as when a pregnancy is the result of rape, or if it endangers the life and health of the mother, or if the foetus is malformed).
Together with access to the free market, Polish women have, therefore, gained access to ever better contraception, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a significant restriction on abortion, compared to the times of the Communist regime.
Of course, hundreds of Polish women carry out abortions every year — due to a defect in the foetus or if they have an unwanted pregnancy — but they do so illegally, either in Poland (in the so-called ‘abortion underground’) or by going abroad.
In Poland, even access to contraception is directly linked to a woman’s place of residence and her wealth. The state reimburses contraception costs, but the vast majority of Polish women prefer to use the services of gynaecologists, paying for the visit, medical examinations and the contraceptives out of their own pockets.
The obstacles to accessing public health services include long queues and waiting times, problems communicating with health centres (especially in the east of the country) and the ‘conscience clause’, under which a Catholic doctor can use to refuse contraception to a patient. This same conscience clause allows a doctor to refuse an abortion. This is why there are already regions in Poland where no abortion is officially carried out. But this does not mean that doctors do not carry out abortions. They do, but often, they do it in private and through illegal means.
This is also why, in Poland, prenatal tests are viewed with suspicion. In theory, these tests are used to check the health of the foetus, but conservatives interpret them as the first step in seeking an abortion. This is the reason why a hospital ward in Warsaw, where foetuses were operated on cardiologically, was recently closed.
The abortion compromise in Poland, which was in force until recently, was a bizarre logical construction: the church and its associated circles believed that the law allowed ‘killing’ anyway, and a large part of the population knew that the compromise meant a de facto on abortion.
For the Church as an institution (the Episcopate) in Poland, the total ban on abortion has become one of the most important objectives. It is important to understand that this outlook is, in many ways, specific to Poland because the country institutional Church has a firm view on this matter, whereas many Catholics are much more liberal.
The demonstrations of recent days, however, are not just about banning abortion in cases where the foetus is malformed. It is about the church’s overall impact on Polish legislation and morality. Young people raised in a liberal Europe do not want to be held hostage to ideas that they consider to be retrograde. The Church and conservatives understand human sexuality only as it conforms to the notion of the traditional family: between a man and a woman, always to reproduce and have children.
The Church, conservatives and the current government consider many things as immoral: abortion, in vitro, homosexual relationships, the adoption of children by homosexual couples, ‘morning-after’ emergency contraception pills. The Church, after all, does not permit the use of contraceptives, including condoms.
The image of a woman based on Maria’s cult, which is common in Poland, assumes that a woman’s primary purpose is to serve as a mother (preferably to several children) to support a man. This is all the more awkward because the model of a woman staying at home ended in Poland a long time ago and is popular only locally, mostly in the eastern regions of the country. It clashes with the ideas of a large proportion of Poles who believe in each individual’s right to decide on their fate and sexuality.
The judgment of the Constitutional Court was passed on the day when further restrictions related to Covid-19 were announced, including a ban on meetings of over five people. The authorities withdrew from previous attempts to tighten the anti-abortion law in 2016 after mass protests. It has now become clear that PiS is using the pandemic to push through this scandalous reform. Therefore, on 23 October, the demonstrators reacted with laughter and whistling when they heard loudspeakers blaring a monotonous police voice, reminding people that there is a pandemic and that they should not gather together. That is why the slogans of the demonstrations became two vulgarisms: “Get the fuck out” and “Fuck the Law and Justice” (however, English does not reflect the wealth of Slavic curses „Wypierdalać” and „Jebać PiS”). People on the streets feel that the ruling Law and Justice party is once again increasing the amount of human suffering in their country.
The people on the streets are angry. As writer Zygmunt Miłoszewski says, the “enemy, the drug cartel, the source of all evil and the common denominator of harm, misery and exclusion is the Catholic Church itself.”
Why now, in the midst of a pandemic, is the Law and Justice party sparking a cultural war whose effects will be terrible? Governments are, as usual, strong against the weak and weak against the strong, and they are causing terrible suffering to the weakest — to the women of the working classes, who cannot travel as easily as middle and upper-class women to the Czech Republic or Germany for an abortion.
Those in power are declaring a war that they cannot win in the long term. They will not win the war, because the scale of the protests in Poland has shown that there is little support for such changes in society and that society is secularising rapidly.
“Poland has condemned its citizens and their children to martyrdom and unthinkable suffering. And it is our fault. In order to redeem it, we must go to war, which will be long and difficult.”
Zygmunt Miloszewski, writer
At a time when the whole of Poland should be isolating itself because it has several thousand new cases of Covid-19 every day, thousands of people are demonstrating in the streets. Soon, social fury will begin to pour out for other reasons — the system for Covid testing has collapsed, there is a shortage of medicines in pharmacies, the health service is not working, schools have been closed again, businesses receive no state aid, mass unemployment is looming…
Thanks to the pandemic, PiS finally has what it has always dreamt of: millions of very scared citizens. Perhaps it expects that the insecurities of the present times will allow it to pass reforms and legislation without eliciting protest from its citizens.
No life will be saved by the decision of the Polish Constitutional Court. But it is certain that many lives will be destroyed as a result of its decisions.