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What the hell is happening in Poland? 

I’m assuming you all already know that a massive protest movement took over Poland since last Thursday when the country’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortion carried out when the foetus is malformed is against the constitution. By delivering this decision, the tribunal effectively delegalised abortion in Poland. The protests started immediately after the verdict and, at time of writing, only grow in strength and fierceness. 

In this text, I will introduce you to the lesser-known happenings of recent days, and to a bit of history on the fight for abortion rights in Poland. 

The so-called “abortion compromise”

Pregnant people in Poland seeking abortion were subjected to severe maltreatment for decades, and the latest legal developments just add another layer of cruelty to it. 

The current abortion law passed through the Polish parliament (Sejm) in January 1993. The new law replaced the legal act from 1956, which made provisions for abortion due to social reasons. The 1993 bill abolished it and allowed for the procedure to be carried on only in three cases:

  • When the pregnancy poses a risk to life and health of the pregnant person;
  • Due to fatal defects 
  • When the pregnancy is a result of a crime (up to 12th week)

Hence the 1993 bill removed the right to abortion due to social reasons. It also made no provisions in regards to the respect of body autonomy of a pregnant person who simply does not want to carry on with the pregnancy for whatever reason. The law was passed under the government of Hanna Suchocka: a right-wing politician and a Thatcher look-a like who, fun fact, later in her political career was nominated as Poland’s ambassador to the Vatican. 

The major lobbying power behind the law was, of course, the catholic church. The church was, and still is, bend-over-backwards on the idea of controlling gender-oppressed peoples’ bodies, autonomy, and the right of making decisions over their own lives.

Back in the 90s, the new law has already caused outrage and triggered a movement which, among other actions, gathered 1.7 million signatures backing the petition to the Polish parliament (Sejm) to relax it. This movement was ignored by Sejm.

And so, the 1993 law, dishonestly called “abortion compromise” remained in place for the past 27 years. The myth of a “compromise” was incredibly prelevent in Polish politics. Since 1993, pretty much any attempt to change it was met with accusations of destroying the “compromise”, creating unnecessary social conflict, and “politicising” the issue of abortion.

For the record, the recent move on abortion is to be blamed solely on the now-ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). However, the previous governments also took no action to ensure the right to legal abortion in the country, instead opting for leaving the issue as it was. It was basically a “hot potato” kind of issue, and it was never acted upon, largely due to the fear of the powers of the catholic church by the whatever party was in power at any given time. 

To make the lives of pregnant people even more difficult, in 1996 Sejm passed another law, this time under the social democrat government of Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz. The new law allowed doctors the right to “conscientious objection to abortion”. Or, in other words, it provided freedom for doctors to refuse otherwise legal treatment based on their religious beliefs and consciousness. Further, the law required the doctor refusing a procedure to point the patient to the institution where they would be able to get it. 

Similar laws exist in, among others, 21 other EU countries as well as the UK. But in Poland, the doctors using the “conscientious objection” to refuse abortions routinely ignored their legal duty to give information on where to get it. They often sabotaged the whole process for as long as it took for the pregnancy to be mature enough to make terminating it illegal. What’s more, some doctors started to use the law to refuse people access to contraceptives. They were followed by a significant number of pharmacists, who, in their turn, started to refuse to sell or stock such medications. 

So, what was the result of this?

Along with making the lives of people wanting to decide on their reproductive rights for themselves very difficult, Poland’s laws lead to the unbearable suffering of many pregnant people. 

One of them is Alicja Tysiąc, who, during her third pregnancy in 2000, was diagnosed with pathological changes in her retina. The diagnosis further said that the carrying of her pregnancy will likely result in her losing sight and numerous other health issues. Despite abortion being legal in such cases under the 1993 law, Tysiąc was forced to carry on with the pregnancy by her doctors. After delivering birth to her child, she had lost her sight almost entirely. As a consequence, Poland’s social warfare decided that she is unable to look after her, now three, children because she is unable to see from a distance of more than 1.5 meters. 

Alicja Tysiąc filed a criminal complaint against the doctor responsible for sabotaging her right to pregnancy termination. Her claim was subsequently dismissed by the prosecution, and after some more legal back-and-forth, the case ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that the treatment of Tysiąc by the Polish state was a violation of Article 8  of ECHR (right to private life) and Article 3 of ECHR (torture, inhuman or degrading treatment). Tysiąc was also subjected to a campaign of hate and harassment by religious fundamentalists.

There were several other cases regarding the access to (still) legal forms of abortion in Poland over the years. In 2017, the ECHR stated that Poland lacks sufficient measures to enable pregnant people the right to carry on pregnancy termination allowed by Polish law. 

In 2008, a 14-year-old girl, Agata, was subjected to a horrific campaign of abuse for wanting to get an abortion following rape. Agata and her mother first attempted to get the treatment in her hometown of Lublin. Despite trying in two different hospitals and the case very much falling into Poland’s legal framework, the treatment was refused. In one of the hospitals, a priest entered a room, uninvited, during Agata’s medical consultation. He then proceeded to intimidate Agata and her mother to force them to give up on getting an abortion. 

Since then, Agata and her family were harassed and stalked by catholic fundamentalists. A legal case against the mother was also filed. Eventually, Agata’s mother took her to a hospital in Warsaw where she was told she will be able to get help. She was followed there by local to her priest and other anti-abortion extremists, who occupied the hospital’s reception. The abortion had not taken place, and shortly after, a family court decided to place Agata in a foster care pending a trial designed to deny her mother custody rights. 

The religious fundamentalists’ campaign against Agata and her family was so horrific that it forced then-minister of health Ewa Kopacz to nominate a hospital where she will be able to get the procedure. Agata eventually successfully terminated her pregnancy on the very last day when it was still legal. The catholic church and other fundamentalists have never faced any consequences for their harassment and abuse of a 14-year-old rape survivor and her family. 

Is there no abortion in Poland then?

Of course, this mistreatment of pregnant people in Poland was met with significant opposition. First of all, the strict laws, unsurprisingly really, have not reduced the number of abortions at all. In Poland, about 100 thousand abortions are carried on annually, of which only about 1000 are legal (this number will likely be reduced by about 98% if the recent constitutional tribunal decision comes to force). Due to restrictive laws, the majority of abortions are conducted in so-called “abortion underground” and often homemade. 

Some informal schemes are in place to ensure peoples’ reproductive rights. There are many mutual aid kind of groups providing assistance to those wishing to terminate their pregnancy. They usually help with travelling abroad or with access to safe ways of homemade abortion. There are entire spreadsheet files publicly available, listing doctors decent enough to prescribe contraception without judgement or prejudice, or indeed perform an abortion in the cases where the law (still) allows it. 

It is also possible to get an illegal abortion, provided that one can afford it. These are sometimes performed by the very same doctors who refused it, citing their religious beliefs, in their day job in public hospitals but are more than happy to conduct it after hours for a fee. Polish classifieds ads feature plenty adverts for that, coded as “bringing back periods” and others. This situation has made access to abortion a class issue, with some people able to afford to undergo the procedure either abroad, or illegally in Poland, while others are forced to either carry on with unwanted pregnancies or to risk their life and health during homemade abortions.

The recent protests

The recent far-right if not blatantly fascist government since it came to power in 2015 repeatedly tied to further restrict the already reduced access to abortion. This lead to the creation of a protest movement which, over the last few years, was able to successfully block previous attempts which were presented in the Polish parliament through mass protests and strikes.

PiS does not like protests and strikes in the slightest, and the recent move to, in reality, by-pass the proper legislative process and instead enforce the ban on abortion by the decision of country’s highest court is a response to this movement. What’s more, the government decided to move on abortion rights in the midst of the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, apparently in hope that this will reduce the protests. 

What it did instead was creating, in my opinion, the biggest threat to the existing government to date. So far, Poland has been gripped by protest actions in all forms for the past five days. The protests are supported by an increasing number of people and groups. Many Polish health workers joined actions over the past few days. Farmers also expressed their support, so did the miners’ union WZZ “Sierpień 80”. 

The horrifying cruelty of the constitutional tribunal’s ruling united large parts of society: some of which are not exactly known for their support of gender-oppressed peoples’ rights. In one instance, the football hooligans from the notorious Arka Gdynia club have trashed the office of their local ruling party MP to express how they feel about the tribunal’s ruling. 

The anarchists, unsurprisingly, take an active part in the protest actions in the country.  Along with of their daily presence on the streets in the past few days, in Poznań, the anarchists occupied a derelict hospital and set up a symbolic abortion clinic there (they were, sadly, removed by the police). Poland’s ABC is providing vital legal help to those arrested. 

The protests also took some unseen before forms. On Sunday, many catholic churches across the country became a stage of protest actions during masses. There are also daily protests in front churches and other church-related institutions, sometimes resulting in the damage caused to the church property. Online, people are organising to formally leave the catholic church, and priests are routinely heckled in both big and small towns. Here, you can see a group of protesters in Szczecinek, a 40 thousand people town, heckling their local priest, first ordering him to “go back inside the church” and then to simply “go and fuck himself”:

This level of hostility against the catholic church institutions was previously pretty much unthinkable in Poland and shows how the church, by its own actions and assumed sense of power really, is losing its grip over the country. 

Other actions include today’s occupation of Sejm by the left MPs, which resulted in the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński being ambushed by people holding pro-abortion signs and cloth hangers:

Kaczyński previously said that that “we will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried and have a name”.

Yesterday, mass blockades brought many Polish cities to a standstill for hours, in many cases to the support of drivers and whoever else still have not joined the protests yet. More actions, both in Poland and abroad, are planned for the upcoming days.

The protests were met with significant levels of police brutality and many arrests. Polish police, among others, resorted to using gas to contain the protest, but this so far proves ineffective, and if anything, just brings more people to the streets.

The far-right

The far-right appears to be taken by surprise by the recent wave of protests. They are scrambling trying to react to it. So far the notorious fascist Robert Bąkiewicz announced the formation of “National Guard”. Similarly to the UK far-right who recently attempted to “protect the monuments” from the BLM protesters, the “National Guard” plans to protect churches, and wider, so-called “western values” from protests.

It is difficult to call this “guard” successful so far. Yesterday evening they performed their first action and were,  according to the report by Bąkiewicz himself, pelted with bottles, firecrackers and stones by the pro-abortion protesters, resulting in a number of nazis having to be taken to the hospital by an ambulance.

In the previous days, the fascists, among them Bąkiewicz, forcibly removed two women from the so-called holy cross church in Warsaw following a protest inside. The women were assaulted and one was pushed down the stairs, while the police were watching. Lucky, both women have not sustained serious injuries.

As for the catholic church itself, after expressing their satisfaction with the constitutional tribunal verdict, they now appear to try to mitigate the first anti-church protests they have ever faced by appealing for calm and civility. So far, without success.

What’s next?

The constitutional tribunal’s ruling, while unbelieveablly inhumane and if implemented, bringing misery to scores of people, also created unintended positive result: it has effectively abolished the previously untouchable “abortion compromise”. This leaves all options, including abortion on request, on the table. The resulting backlash towards the catholic church can, and sooner or later will, bring changes similar to those in the countries hijacked by religious fundamentalists in the past. This is exactly what happened in Spain and Ireland.

It seems that the PiS government, for the first time since it came to power, is facing a serious, and potentially government-abolishing, mass opposition to their actions. This may be considered by some as long overdue. However, in my opinion, the events of the last few days were built up to by a number of other protests from the not-too-distant past, most notoriously the recent actions against the government’s crackdown on queer rights, and the pro-abortion rights protests from the past few years.

PiS appears unsure how to deal with the protests. So far, the PM signed a decision allowing the military gendarmerie to go on the streets from tomorrow, under the pretence of the pandemic. The minister of justice Zbigniew Ziobro also announced that there will be serious consequences inflicted on the people who took part in actions against churches, under Poland’s “profanity laws”. The rest of the government is nowhere to be seen so far, and Jarosław Kaczyński himself was taken away from Warsaw by a helicopter following a protest outside of his home: something which surely was difficult to manage by this paranoid little man.

But other than taking interim measures, PiS is struggling with coming up with a plan on how to deal with the situation they themselves created. They are being left in a rather difficult situation, in which the choices are to either embed the recent constitutional ruling in law and face the, likely severe, consequences of a popular protest movement, or to ignore the decision of the highest court in the country and enrage their catholic fundamentalist supporters, which may result in PiS losing their, already fragile, parliamentary majority.

Additionally, the protests from the past few days are difficult to manage by other parliamentary parties, perhaps with an honourable exception of a few, mainly left, MPs. The very rhetorics of the protests, with the main slogan, “Wypierdalać” translating to “get the fuck out”, followed by “Jebać PiS” or “Fuck PiS” are difficult to digest by many liberals making it quite impossible for them to hijack the recent movement of opposition to the government.

What PiS did appear to achieve however is uniting large parts of the population of a country which in the recent years experienced massive divides and conflicts the party have created themselves. The opposition to PiS is growing by the day and it seems they kind of brought it on themselves by committing a rather common among fascists mistake of thinking they are more powerful than they actually are and forgetting that most people, in fact, aren’t fascist.


Image via Polish Anarchist Black Cross FB page.

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