22nd Oct 2016

Polish women rebel against abortion law

  • Black protest in Paris, on Saturday 1 October. (Photo: Eric Maurice)

Thousands of Polish women are set to strike on Monday (3 October) against a proposal to further restrict their right to abortion.

Some say they will form a human chain around the Palace of Culture in an effort to reclaim the “phallic symbol of Warsaw”. Others threatened to withdraw all their savings from banks. Women cyclists have vowed to block the streets of Wroclaw.

  • "Did I miscarry or kill", a woman wrote on her placard. (Photo: Agnieszka Graff)

Companies, universities and city councils including Czestochowa, Gdansk, Lodz, Poznan and Warsaw have given female employees and students the green light to strike.

Those who weren’t able to take the day off - teachers, for instance - can protest by donning a black dress or pinning a black ribbon to their outfit.

Poland already has one of the strictest abortion regimes in the world.

Women can legally have an abortion when the life or health of the mother is at risk, when the foetus is malformed, or when the pregnancy is the result of a sex crime.

MPs are currently examining a bill, brought to them by a citizens’ initiative last Friday, which would tighten the law further.

The bill suggests punishing women who abort and anyone who helps them with a prison sentence of between three months and five years.

It has been the subject of tense debate for months, but was only recently put on parliament's agenda. MPs voted to debate it further.

’Icelandic strike’

Monday’s rebellion was sparked when award-winning actress Krystyna Janda posted on social media a news story on a 1975 initiative taken by Icelandic women in protest at wage discrimination.

Some 90 percent of Iceland’s women boycotted work, refused to cook and ignored their children for a day, which went down in history as the "long Friday".

Fans of Janda quickly organised a Facebook event, to which hundreds of thousands of women have been invited.

"I read the proposal and realised that with such a bill, I would have been dead since 1980," Janda said in an interview.

“I struggled so hard to get my children, twice doctors had to save my life in the last minute because of ectopic pregnancies [when the foetus develops outside the womb],” she said.

Proponents of the proposal, a group of religious lawyers from the think tank Ordo Iuris, say people have misunderstood their intentions.

“The aim is to stop discrimination against children before they are born,” Joanna Banasiuk, an Opus Dei affiliated assistant professor of law, told parliament when presenting the initiative.

Ordo Iuris promises the project won’t end pre-natal health checks and send women to jail for miscarriages.

But critics are not reassured.

Abortion underground

Feminist activist Agnieszka Graff told this website the current laws were so strict that they already amounted to a de facto ban.

The latest available figures say 1,812 legal abortions were carried out in 2014. Pro-choice organisations estimate that some 50,000 to 200,000 illegal procedures are carried out every year.

“A majority of people supported the ban, while the government let the abortion 'underground' work in peace,” Graff said.

“Women were being humiliated, of course, and had to foot the bill. But they didn’t die, so there was no public outrage.”

If MPs push the bill through, the state will have to crack down on the underground, she said.

“Doctors won’t even refer women for pre-natal testing because this could be seen as facilitating abortions,” Graff predicted.

She described it as an “inhuman proposal” with almost no support, even from the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government. However, she said PiS were likely to back it because they “owed” their right-wing Catholic supporters.

Protests and plenary debate

A poll published last Friday showed that 15 percent of Poles would like to take part in Monday’s strike and that another 35 percent supported the idea. Fourteen percent were against, while the rest were undecided or didn’t care.

The survey also showed that only 11 percent of the population backed the abortion ban. As many PiS voters - 24 percent - want to liberalise the current law as those who wanted to tighten it.

More than 150 events will take place in big cities and small towns on Monday, with another 50 abroad - including one in Iceland. Some started over the weekend.

Thousands of black-clad protesters went through Lodz and even more gathered outside the Polish parliament in Warsaw.

Women displayed signs of solidarity, but also rage.

“PiS off”, “You cun’t”, “I am so angry that I even went to a protest”, their placards said.

They were angry with PiS and the other parties in the Polish parliament, which they said didn't stand up for women's rights.

“Where were you for eight years,” they shouted at politicians from the Civic Platform (PO), including former prime minister Ewa Kopacz, who came to the protest.

The European Parliament will also debate Polish women’s plight on Wednesday.

Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydlo said that the EU had not drawn lessons from Brexit and kept on "dealing with made-up problems".

Janusz Lewandowski, Civic Platform’s leader in the European Parliament, also said the issue “doesn’t fall under the EU treaties”.

But Malin Bjork, a Swedish far-left MEP who was one of the initiative-takers to the debate, told EUobserver that the parliament was "not just a legislative organ, but also one that forms public opinion".

Graff, the Polish feminist, said the EU had too long treated Poland’s almost total clampdown on women’s rights as “cultural diversity”.

“Maybe it’s wishful thinking from my side, but I hope this is the moment when liberal Europe realises it must start defending itself,” she said.

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