From the leading party offices to the city Cathedral and the Curia residency, which is the body governing bishops – people all over Poland chose this route to march in protest against the recent judgment of the Polish Constitutional Court. 60 cities were protesting on Friday and many more joined on Saturday. Hundreds gathered in front of the home of conservative Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński on Friday, with police deploying pepper spray against the protesters and even arresting 15 people. More protests were planned for Monday and all this in the midst of a pandemic that put the whole of Poland in the red zone.
This Thursday 22 October, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal looked into the legality of the so-called “abortion compromise” law and ruled that one of the previously permissable grounds for legal abortion was now illegal. Poland already had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. But now, abortion requested on the grounds of the likelihood of a severe and irreversible fetal impairment or an incurable life threatening disease is now deemed unconstitutional and the law will be updated in a couple of days to reflect this ruling. As of now, Poland will only allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the pregnant woman’s life, making the country one of the most hostile places in Europe for women’s reproductive rights. The law in Ireland, a country whose notoriously punishing abortion restrictions sent generations overseas to terminate their pregnancies, is now more permissive than in Poland. The ruling was politically led, as the government used the Tribunal, which is politicised and staffed with judges appointed illegally, instead of making the unpopular legal change themselves.
Poland’s populist government has been seeking to limit abortion availability in the country for years, and conservative MPs are already announcing they will be seeking further restrictions. This is combined with an organised restriction to access contraception methods, including some pharmacies refusing to honour medical prescriptions for the “morning after pill”. The ban also comes amidst increased criticism of the way the government was handling the pandemic, which included announcements from the Prime Minister this summer that the “disease left Poland”. The Catholic church and the ultra conservative, anti-women organisation Ordo Juris(1), also played an important role.
It naturally brings forward the resemblance to the popular novel by Margaret Atwood (and currently award winning show) – Handmaid’s Tale. In a story about the authoritarian regime of Gilead forces, it’s women that bear the burden of society’s fertility issues, while male infertility is either ignored or dealt with in secrecy. While the book offers a hopefully only dystopian version of our civilisation, we are witnessing the degradation of the rule of law, democracy and common sense in Poland by ultra-conservative and authoritarian actors only concerned with keeping their grip on power. Poland is already stepping up efforts in the region to reject the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, and potentially replace it with another treaty that seeks to boost the rights of ‘traditional families’ at the expense of LGBTI+ community. And already in May, the Polish parliament proposed to remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to another facility if they refuse to provide abortion care based on personal beliefs, with potentially dramatic consequences for women, who may be unable to access care.
This ruling complements hatred campaigns against the LGBTI+ community and dismissing the EU consensus on gender equality and the protection of minorities from discrimination. COVID-19 rules also prohibit legal ways of protest, thus providing a cover to the government pushing through unpopular measures without scrutiny. Observing this from abroad, while living in Belgium, where the fact that the new Deputy Prime-Minister is transgender only made news abroad (as Belgians approached it very matter-of-factly), it is incomprehensible and heartbreaking. My daughter, sitting now next to me (and unfortunately doing a long run of Peppa Pig), was a wanted child in a financially stable family. We received free medical care and all necessary tests, we then received a spot in a nearby childcare facility, allowing us both to resume our work. While as every family we experience the inevitable juggling of sometimes too many balls in the air, we do feel there is a continuous state-level support for our family. There is also support for other choices – like women choosing to end a pregnancy for personal or medical reasons -, as well as easy access to contraception, early school sexual education, support to families caring for disabled children and many others that factor into whether a country is truly women-friendly. Not allowing women to make their own decisions with the support of medical professionals is not “family friendly” or “Christian”. It’s inhumane.
1 Ordo Juris- ultra conservative anti-choice organization trying to influence national and European legislation through legal expertise. Conservative Christian legal think tank providing legal analysis primarily on ECHR cases, but also to the Commission and to the OSCE.