As Poland’s right-wing PiS (Law and Justice) government puts on hold the implementation of a new court ruling that would outlaw almost all abortions, Politika News talks to Polish women who have been protesting over the last week. They try to put into words their anger and fatigue, as well as what life for Polish women in Poland has been like under a right-wing government with close ties to a powerful Catholic Church.
We spoke first to Aleksandra Sidoruk, an International Relations student in Łódź.
It seems an obvious question to ask, but it is important to be clear: why have Polish women been protesting?
Polish women have been protesting against the verdict of the Constitutional Court on abortion. It took place on the 22nd of October and sought to ban almost all abortions in Poland. So this court (fully politicised and undemocratic) decided that abortions due to incurable foetal defects are not constitutional. We demand the liberalisation of abortion – we want to have the right to decide on our bodies and health. We also need high-quality sex education, easier access to contraceptives, separation of Church and State, and the resignation of this government.
What has life been like for Polish women under this far-right government? Is this the first time the government has attacked women’s rights?
Definitely not. We had massive strikes back in 2016 when the government tried to take the abortion ban further. Not only is Duda and the government far-right and conservative, but they’re all also very religious. It is not an exaggeration when we call them “religious fundamentalists”. Women are seen as incubators – we should give birth to children and be good wives. But I know that this is changing. There’s a new generation that is just like me: atheist, open-minded, career-driven and who want independence, not kids or marriage. I think the government is scared of this idea.
President Duda had previously announced a so-called ‘legislative solution’ to the anti-abortion controversy, suggesting that abortions of foetuses with terminal defects would be allowed. Can you explain why this is not good enough?
First of all, how ironic it is that he came up with this idea after the Court’s decision, not before? This proposition is not good enough. There’s no help for disabled children and their parents, so a lot of women can’t afford to have a child that will be disabled. But the most important thing is that we simply want to be able to decide whether we want to have children. If we do, then we want to decide when. If we do not, then we should have access to abortion no matter the reason. We simply want the liberalisation of abortion laws.
400 000 people protested in over 400 towns and cities on Wednesday 28 October alone. Why do you think so many women have been turning out?
They don’t want old men making decisions on their bodies.
From what you have seen, is it mostly young women who are turning out to protest?
No! There are people from different age groups. Very, very young kids with their parents, people who are over 60, students, young adults. Absolutely every age group. But it’s true that a lot of young people, who haven’t been active protesters before, are now on the streets. We’re aware that the pandemic has made it really hard for older people to protest. Nonetheless, they’re still with us.
How has the police responded to the protests? Have they acted violently towards protesters?
At first, the police acted rather brutally. There were cases of them using pepper spray or arresting protesters, but now I feel like the situation has calmed down and police are starting to protect us, not attack. Although it highly depends on the city. For example, while there were cases of police acting aggressively in Warsaw, in my hometown – Łódź – they were both peaceful and helpful.
Are Polish women hopeful they can bring down their government?
We really are planning to do so! We’re motivated and we believe that it is now or never. Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) has created a Consultative Board to fix every mess that PiS has made so far. Not only in women’s rights but in every other aspect – like healthcare for example. Even if we don’t bring them down we will make it very hard for them to win the next election, that’s for sure.
On the whole, do you think Polish society has a ‘woman problem’? In other words, do you think Polish society is misogynist?
Yes, very much so. Women are often seen as objects – sexual ones. We’re fun to use for sex and pleasure, but we’re not worthy as successful individuals. Of course, it is changing – but due to stereotypes we are still considered as people who need to give birth, get married, and take good care of the home.
If you had to boil it down to three things, what do Polish women want to change in their country?
Accessible and legal abortion. Equal opportunities and payment. Separation of Church and State.
Politika News also spoke with medic student, Dominika Bąk, from Wroclaw.
Why is the proposed abortion ban for cases of foetal defects, further to the existing restrictions on abortion, so problematic from a medical perspective?
First of all, every pregnancy is a burden on the woman’s body. If the foetus is diagnosed with a lethal defect, the woman will be forced to continue the pregnancy and as a result, a number of complications could appear.
Just to mention the most frequents ones: intrauterine infections, haemorrhage or thromboembolic complications. Some of the most serious complications can result in a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) which, naturally, would deprive the woman of the possibility of motherhood in the future.
Moreover, one has to remember the destructive results a complicated pregnancy like that would have on a woman’s mental health. It is a traumatic experience that often leads to a number of mental disorders for the woman.
As medical students and doctors we are taught a fundamental principle: primum non nocere (‘First, do not harm’). Forcing women to continue a pregnancy when there are (lethal and non-lethal) foetal defects causes unnecessary suffering. It is against the Medical Code of Ethics and all the values that should be fundamental for health professionals.
If the proposed ban on almost all abortions eventually becomes law, what do you fear will happen to Polish women who are carrying a foetus with defects but can’t access reproductive healthcare?
Some women will have to perform their abortions abroad, others will have to turn to so-called ‘underground’ abortion services. The abortion will not be safe. It is and will become even less available for poor people and the existing stigma around abortion will grow.
In the case of non-lethal but incurable defects, there is a wide spectrum of congenital defects. In many cases a new born will spend their whole life lying down, not being able to walk, to talk, to have any kind of interaction with the surrounding environment and they will require intensive care as well as parental sacrifice, rehabilitation, a special diet, special equipment, and numerous hospitalisations. Not every mother is strong enough to cope, not every woman can afford it. The government does very little to support the disabled and the child’s needs might therefore significantly exceed the family’s funds.
Have you ever had to take care of vulnerable women who were unable to get abortions? And do you think the Polish situation is unique to Poland – or does Europe have a broader problem with safe abortions?
As far as I know it is a unique problem. In almost all European countries abortion is legal and free – it is a medical procedure like any other treatment one undergoes during their life. Even before the current anti-abortion legislation, Poland had one of the strictest abortions laws in Europe. It could be conducted only in three cases: in the case of rape, if the mother’s health or life are in danger and the one we are discussing now – in the case of incurable defects of the foetus.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the ‘conscience clause’ ? It gives doctors the power to deny a treatment or a procedure if it goes against their beliefs. Therefore even if a woman in Poland has a right to have an abortion, finding a clinic that will perform a procedure is not that easy, especially in small towns. What’s more, standing in front of many of the clinics that perform abortions, religious people will often tell any woman entering the building that she is going to murder her own child and that she will go to hell. This is very traumatic and ought not to be happening in the twenty-first century.
Do you think the Polish government has considered the science behind abortion? If not, why?
This decision has nothing to do with science – it is purely ideological. In western countries abortion is considered a medical procedure. But in Poland, the far-right government does not use the term ‘abortion’ or ‘pregnancy termination’, but refers to it as murder. How can one use rational argumentation against this kind of ideological statement? PiS (Law and Justice, ruling party) knows that their electorate is expecting a total abortion ban . They do not think about the women who will have to go through this hell. All that matters for them is to stay in power.
It’s perhaps a difficult question to answer briefly but what do you think is the biggest factor that stops governments like the current PiS government from offering humane abortion policies?
I believe the biggest factor is simply ideology. And the Church of course, but these two are inseparable in Poland. Poland is a very Catholic country. The Church has great power – it influences and puts pressure on the government to force insane (I really mean that) laws like the one we are talking about now. The Church also receives money from the ruling party because it is classed as a ‘charity organisation’, while genuine charity organisations have not received a government subsidy for years.
All the while, the rate of participation in church services in Poland is falling faster than anywhere in the world. The ruling party maintains a narrative of being one of the last countries in Europe that ‘protects Catholic values’ and there are a lot of people who want to hear this. Poland is full of traditionalists, nationalists, ‘pro-life activists’ that hate many groups of people. These people believe that the values they have are the only correct ones, so everyone should share them. They call us – people in the streets – murderers and degenerates. They compare choosing to have an abortion to choosing to shoot someone in the street. Insane as it sounds, they really do not see the difference. Why can we not have a sane policy on abortion? Because in reality we are not a secular country.
Finally, Politika News spoke with two Polish protesters studying in Cambridge, United Kingdom. They both confirmed much of what Aleksandra and Dominika had to say.
Wiktoria, a protester and student, gave her analysis of Poland’s state of affairs: “Last week the politicised state tribunal, with practically only male judges (13/15) and connected with the Law and Justice party, decided for the first time in history to ban abortion in nearly all previous legal cases. The Court examined the request made by the ruling Orthodox Catholic Party (Law and Justice), the neo-fascist party (Konfederacja), and “pro-suffering” organisation Ordo Iuris.
The current abortion ban in Poland will only expand the issue of abortion underground, which is dangerous and, unfortunately, often is the only option for girls from rural areas. It’s horrendous that girls living in a European Union member state, in the twenty-first century, have to practice abortion tourism in Slovakia or, in the worst-case scenario, use illegal tablets from the Internet. The Polish government has blood on its hands.
I might not currently live in Poland, but I’m still one of the Polish women. Even if I can’t strike in my hometown, I want to express my anger. There is no freedom without solidarity, so as a Polish society – no matter who we are and where we are – we must work together. Pressure makes sense, so I will stand with my sisters against government brutality as long as necessary.”
Barbara Węgrzyn, an HSPS (Human, Social, and Political Science) student from the University of Cambridge, argues, “One of the reasons why the aforementioned ruling has been so significant is that there is a deeply concerning problem of women’s healthcare in Poland. There is no easy access to birth control and IVF. There are also massive issues with the prenatal medicine procedures for pregnant women.
Under the presidency of Duda and PIS’ government, however, the very conservative and Catholic narrative of how family life should look like has targeted both women and sexual minorities. PiS has also been very much playing with the term ‘gender ideology’ to refer to the combination of fighting for equality, sexual education at school and the liberalisation of abortion. Of course, all these movements have been dismissed publicly as ‘threats against Polish values’. This has painted women fighting for the liberalisation of abortion, the LGBTQ+ community, and other groups as the ones who are attacking Polish culture.”
When asked who is to blame for Poland’s abortion crisis, Wiktoria was unequivocal with her answer: “I blame the crisis on the Polish Catholic Church and its straight collaboration with the government. For years the Church has spread propaganda on public television, such as TVP, and used its authority to justify generally wrongful actions from the Law and Justice Party. Priests have politicised the masses. The Church has been trying to force its ideas about no sex education, more religion lessons in schools and abortion bans into parliament. Today the Church and members of the Law and Justice Party have blood on the hands.“
One thing is clear from the ongoing protests and the remarks made by Aleksandra, Dominika, Wiktoria, and Barbara: Poland’s women are ready to bring down patriarchal institutions.