Poland’s Massive Abortion Protest Shows That Citizens Are Frustrated With The Country’s Rightward Surge

The proposed abortion ban may have been rejected, but for some Poles, the legislation's another indication that the nation's slipping back to the dark ages.
Thousands take part in a nationwide strike and demonstration to protest against a legislative proposal for a ban on abortion on October 3, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.
Thousands take part in a nationwide strike and demonstration to protest against a legislative proposal for a ban on abortion on October 3, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.
Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images

LVIV, Ukraine Last week, Poland’s ruling government, the Law and Justice party, or PiS, rejected a proposal to ban abortion, but not before black-clad Poles, who donned the color in symbolic mourning of the potential loss of their reproductive rights, took to the streets across the country in a revolt against its rightward surge. The peaceful protests culminated in a nationwide strike, with thousands of women from across 60 Polish cities estimated participating.

While the demonstrations did result in the termination of the proposed abortion ban, the Polish political divide within the traditionally right and more center-leaning parties remains strong.

Gocha Adamczyk, a member of the left-wing Razem party, is the woman who started the online movement credited with rallying protesters. She said that her motivation was clear from the start: she wanted to give girls from smaller towns across the nation the ability to express their concerns with the trajectory of their country.

Women protest in response to a proposed bill to ban abortion in Poland, in Gdansk, Poland, on October 3, 2016.
Women protest in response to a proposed bill to ban abortion in Poland, in Gdansk, Poland, on October 3, 2016.
Michal Fludra/Getty Images

“This protest was so simple and accessible in style that our message went further,” Adamczyk told The WorldPost.

The strike resulting from her online movement was organized through Facebook and quickly went viral. More than 100,000 confirmed their attendance. Another 90,000 indicated interest and individual Facebook pages were set up for cities across Poland, a number that surprised Poles despite previous protests against the government this year. In the week prior to the huge demonstration, Polish women also took to other forms of social media using the hashtag, #CzarnyProtest, or #Black Protest, to express themselves.

But this massive event, which garnered attention across the world for its size, was not the first time this year that Poles have gathered to send a signal to their government.

In fact, they have done it at least three times this year, protesting anything from European Union involvement in Polish politics, to the governing style of the ruling party, who some believe are undemocratically running the government. It’s part of a larger trend across Europe, wherein liberals feel like the values they’ve fought decades to instill are rapidly eroding.

“'[Poles would] not allow for the nightmare of authoritarian rule.'”

- Former Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna

Peter Foster of The Telegraph points to two key drivers of this rightward surge “from Athens to Amsterdam and many points in between.” He writes that the, “toxic combination of the most prolonged period of economic stagnation and the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War” are driving Europeans to turn away from liberalism. And he is not the only one who feels this way. A recent New York Times investigation indicated that right-wing parties, including far right parties, across Europe are making significant electoral gains, a phenomenon that has even been applied by some analysts to the polarization of politics in the United States ― and the emergence of Donald Trump ― as well.

As in other parts of Europe, frustration in Poland has been bubbling since the right-wing Law and Justice party’s election in 2015. Just a few months ago, in May of this year, tens of thousands of Poles flooded the streets to express frustration with the way the ruling party has governed the country since its election, with some Poles citing the fear of authoritarianism in their nation as their cause for protest.

In fact, leader of center-right former ruling party Civic Platform and former Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told protesters gathered at a rally in May that, “[Poles would] not allow for the nightmare of authoritarian rule to happen.”

People protest against Law and Justice ruling party attempt to change constitutional law in Gdansk, Poland, on May 3, 2016.
People protest against Law and Justice ruling party attempt to change constitutional law in Gdansk, Poland, on May 3, 2016.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

In this frustration, both Poles and the European Union have cited constitutional changes by the Law and Justice party as going so far as to directly undermine the democracy of the country, with the European Commission launching an investigation into recent constitutional changes ― the first investigation of its kind in the EU’s history.

The laws under investigation include those of freedom of the press, as well as many others that the commission sees as consolidating government power under the ruling party. Left-leaning Poles fear that unless they stand up now, their country will continue to quickly slide towards the right as the right-wing ruling party continues to gain political monopoly, similar to Hungary, where the country’s largest left-wing newspaper was just shut down.

Earlier this year, three former Polish presidents published an open letter condemning the recently elected government for what they saw as a “usurpation of power” over existing rules and bodies. Although their faith in the established parties may have diminished, Poles are using direct democracy to fight for their rights. Demonstrations have been running almost continuously since shortly after PiS took power last year, starting in December 2015.

“'It’s a draconian proposal, we are not overestimating the threat.'”

- Director of Amnesty International’s Poland office Draginja Nadazdin

The frustration bubbled up most recently in the form of a controversial proposal to ban abortions entirely. Although the country already has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, some believe it isn’t restrictive enough. The current legislation only allows abortion in cases where the woman has been raped or subject to incest, there is the possibility of death to the mother, or if the fetus is severely damaged.

Much of the media coverage on the protests ― including this recent one on abortion ― highlights the growing frustration among Poland’s liberal population, but there is still a sizable contingency within the traditionally religious nation who believe the law, and the current ruling party, are an accurate representation of their values, if not even a little too liberal. That’s where the proposal comes in.

The proposal to ban abortions began as a citizens’ initiative drafted by Ordo Iuris, a conservative organization, which gathered more than the 100,000 signatures required for the proposal to be read in parliament. However, a similar proposal in 2011 was rejected in its first reading by the then-ruling Civic Platform party.

Karina Walinowicz, a legal analyst for Ordo Iuris, is one of those who thinks the laws should be even tighter.

“We don’t think the current law is restrictive,” Wailnowicz told The WorldPost. “We actually find it restrictive against kids, and we think it should be liberalized to allow for the full protection of the child. Right now, a fetus isn’t protected by the law, and [it] doesn’t get the same rights as others.”

Her organization is composed of lawyers and researchers working to change Polish law to be more in line with Catholic values. The country is already arguably the most Catholic in Europe, with at least 87 percent of Poles identifying with the religion. Now with the election of the Law and Justice party, a right-wing party criticized for its strong relationship with the Catholic Church, the division between church and state seems to be growing murkier.

In an interview with The WorldPost, the director of the country’s Amnesty International branch scolded Ordo Iuris’ proposal, calling it a threat to Polish society.

“It’s a draconian proposal, we are not overestimating the threat,” Draginja Nadazdin, director of Amnesty International’s Poland office, said. “It becomes possible for doctors to be penalized just for providing advice. It puts horrible pressure on doctors. And women who perform abortions might be penalized with jail time.”

Penalizing women for performing abortions is an extremely unpopular move, Kinga Stanczuk, a foreign affairs representative for the Razem party, agreed.

“Even the Bishops’ Conference, a central organ of [the] Catholic Church in Poland, advised against it, and yet it ... passed the first stage of [the] Polish legislation process,” she said.

“For many Poles, the move towards the recent proposal of a possible abortion ban is simply another way that this unjust power is manifesting itself in their country.”

Along with the political party divide, polls taken throughout the country before the ruling against the proposal show conflicting reports on the Polish population’s desire to ban abortion entirely. The Wall Street Journal wrote that 58 percent support it and the Financial Times wrote that the majority do not.

This does not, however, seem to be equally represented in the way that the country has handled the legislation surrounding the issue. As we have seen, the proposal for a total ban on abortion passed through the first stage of vetting, but was rejected by the ruling party shortly after the large protests and strike. At the same time, a proposal to soften the already strict abortion law was immediately dismissed, an imbalance that continues to frustrate some Poles.

“This citizens’ initiative for a draft bill to liberalize the present abortion regulations, which gathered signatures of hundreds of thousands of Poles, was rejected outright during the same session,” said an infuriated member of the left-wing Razem party, Joanna Bronowicka.

The law that Ordo Iuris produced had only one opt out for abortions. This meant that even if a teenage girl is raped, or the fetus stands no chance of survival, she would have been forced to give birth. In this version of the law, the only time at which a woman could obtain an abortion is if she’s in direct danger of death. However, who decides what constitutes “direct danger” and at what point is a major point of contention.

Polish doctors feared that the proposal would have forced them to show proof that their decision to abort was appropriate. This means doctors might be willing to let a woman die instead of face jail time, Dr. Romuald Dębski, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, told Polish media in a recent interview.

Dr. Kaja Filaczynska, a young doctor in Poland, echoed these sentiments, telling The WorldPost that she and her colleagues were not only angry with the proposal, but also scared. And while the proposal has been overturned and is unlikely to return, there is still a strong push from the right towards banning abortion in the country ― and both the proposed legislation and the general sentiment present problems for Polish society.

So for many Poles, the move towards the recent proposal of a possible abortion ban is simply another way that this unjust power is manifesting itself in their country. And they’re determined to do something about it.

Andrew Peter Eddles, who participated in last week’s abortion protest, said the crowd was angry yet well behaved and shocked at the actual turnout.

“We were wondering how many people would be there, and no one could believe it when we saw the turnout,” he said. “It was a wet and windy afternoon and people were smiling, getting soaked and yet that determination was showing through. Afterwards in a cafe everyone inside was wearing black and there was a bond, swapping stories with strangers about how it affected them.”

“'The women here are really powerful and not as submissive as the government would have thought.'”

- 18-year-old Warsaw native Olga Olszewska

Olga Olszewska, an 18-year-old Warsaw native who also demonstrated, found the experience energizing.

“All of it was really empowering,” she said. “These thousands of people all dressed in black, singing, shouting. I don’t even know how to put it in words, to be honest. I guess the women here are really powerful and not as submissive as the government would have thought.”

Last week was just another example of exasperated Poles taking matters into their own hands, but not everyone comes away as energized and as optimistic about the future of Poland, even with the victory of a proposal overturned.

As some women in Warsaw, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid any potential backlash against them, told The WorldPost, they feel like they’re watching their country slip back to the dark ages. And feeling totally betrayed by their leaders, they’re resorting to the only form of direct democracy they have for now ― mass protest.

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute.

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