Tuesday

2nd Mar 2021

Feature

Poland: Abortion 'revolution' means end of old order

  • Polish women at last week's abortion protest in the city of Łódź (Photo: Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom)

More than half a million people protested in Poland over the weekend against a recent court ruling that indirectly, but effectively bans abortion.

And the largest street rallies since Solidarność marches, which led to the fall of communism in the 1980s, continue despite skyrocketing numbers of Covid-19 cases - so will the conservative government survive this flood?

Read and decide

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It was loud, crowded, joyful, and tense.

On Friday night (31 October), Warsaw city-centre was taken over by 150,000 angry, but hopeful people in an act of mass civil disobedience prompted by a recent constitutional court ruling that banned all abortions on grounds of "foetal defects".

Protesters walked from three directions, met in the city centre, and marched to the house of Jarosław Kaczyński, the deputy prime minister and the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, despite a ban on public gatherings of more than five people.

Kaczyński's house, as well as nearby churches, were heavily protected by dozens of armed police vehicles and cordons of officers.

"This is a revolution!", Marta Lempart, one of the activists from Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (OSK), an NGO supporting the protests, shouted to the crowd.

Despite the huge numbers of police and paramilitary gendarmes on the streets, a number of times protesters were attacked by groups of nationalists throwing fire-crackers, rocks, and other missiles into the crowd in what might have been a response to Kaczyński's recent call to protect churches "at all costs", which he issued on 27 October.

Police arrested 37 people, 35 of whom were identified as football hooligans.

The huge demonstrations, now in their second week, also continued in most major cities as well as in small towns.

People marched in Wrocław, Poznań, Gdańsk, Katowice, Kraków, as well as Otwock, Iława, Puławy, Nałęczów, Limanowa, and Wadowice - smaller towns formerly seen as far-right strongholds.

"This is unimaginable that in the 21st century women cannot make decisions about their bodies", said Beata, who participated in Wrocław's marches.

"Enough is enough", said Paulina, a mother of one, who went on the streets as her husband took care of their one-year old child.

Pro-LGBTI banners also frequently seen at protests (Photo: Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom)

Broadening scope

The protests, initially prompted by the court ruling on abortion, have broadened their scope.

"People demand judicial reform that will re-establish court independence. They want changes to the financing of health care, [give] financial support for companies and workers affected by the pandemic, social support for disabled people, full reproductive rights for women [access to legal abortion, contraceptives, sex education], human rights, separation between church and state, and finally - the resignation of the government", the OSK's Lempart said.

According to Adam Mrozowicki, a sociologist at the University of Wrocław, the new protests do not resemble any of the other demonstrations against PiS that took place since it won power in 2015.

"This time, the core is made of young people. The protests are largely spontaneous and seem to cut across social structures. A very important aspect is the opposition toward the [Roman] Catholic church and its influence over authorities, education, and culture in Poland", he told EUobserver.

But the government does not want to acknowledge that.

Even though opinion polls show that 54 percent of Poles support the movement, nobody from PiS has reached out to the organisers or walked out to meet protesters.

Instead, the party has tried to demonise the protests as "riots" and fanned the flames by saying that demonstrators were vandals with no agenda or vulgar and violent "leftist militias".

Speaking before Friday's marches, Michał Woś, the deputy justice minister, called on prosecutors "to treat all protest organisers as criminals", threatening them with up to eight years in prison, on grounds they "endanger the life and health of many people" due to the pandemic.

The minister of education and science, Przemysław Czarnek, warned that universities which granted students days off to join the rallies may face future difficulties in obtaining funds.

And last Tuesday, Kaczyński issued a video statement saying: "These attacks are meant to destroy Poland" and warned of "the end of ... the Polish nation as we know it".

He also urged his supporters to defend "Poland and patriotism" in what he called a "war".

"I walk around with security and many of us aren't living in their own homes right now", OSK's Lampart said.

"We receive threats on a daily basis", she added.

Protests marked by heavy security presence (Photo: Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom)

National mood

The latest opinion polls show that support for the governing party has plunged during the crisis.

According to surveys on 26 and 27 October, the PiS-led coalition can now count on just 26 percent of votes, down 10 points from the beginning of the month, and the lowest level since 2014.

Trying to mitigate the political damage, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, on Friday, urged protesters "to direct their anger at him" personally and did not condemn the marches.

The same day, Polish president Andrzej Duda filed amendments to the abortion law to soften the court ruling, by, for instance, allowing abortion in the case of fatal foetal defects.

The PiS coalition backed the move and presented it as a solution that should be "satisfactory to everyone".

But it did not stop the protests.

"We continue ... to work on ideas for the best legal actions that need to be taken to clean up the mess left by this government", OSK's Lempart told this website.

According to Ewa Łętowska, a constitutional law expert, the Duda amendment was unclear and would plunge both women and doctors into a legal void.

"The wording used in this bill is very vague. What does it mean 'the highest probability' of lethal damage that will 'lead to the death of the child'? How can a doctor state this with 100 percent certainty at an early stage of pregnancy? Nobody will take a risk to perform abortion under such unclear, but strict circumstances", Łętowska told EUobserver.

Wording of new amendment 'very vague' (Photo: bloomsberries)

No consensus

Meanwhile, if the OSK, as well as politicians from the left, are calling for the liberalisation of abortion and "full reproductive rights for women", their position does not command a majority in Polish society.

According to a recent survey by pollster Kantar, 62 percent of Poles still strongly support the pre-court ruling abortion status quo.

They believe abortion should be allowed only if there is a risk to the mother's life and health (63 percent), if the foetus has permanent and incurable defects (59 percent), or if the pregnancy is a result of rape (54 percent).

Based on those provisions, around 1,100 abortion procedures are currently being conducted each year.

For Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, a left-wing MP, in a country of 38 million people, that amounts to almost "no access to abortion" at all.

But at the same time, just 22 percent of Poles support full reproductive rights for women (legal abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy), while a hardline 11 percent would like to see a total ban.

Perhaps this is why some opposition parties have been hesitant to back the OSK's postulates.

"These protests are very difficult for political parties to address, mostly due to conservatism and generational issues", Wrocław University's Mrozowicki said.

The Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Coalition), the second largest political party, has backed the protests, but has not openly declared support for OSK demands.

"We have not taken a position on this matter, we want to start a serious public debate on abortion and hear all voices - this is a matter for Polish families, whose voice is the most important for us," Danuta Jazłowiecka, a Civic Coalition senator, told EUobserver.

Her party's ratings have also been hit by the latest events. It lost 4 percent of support and can now count on 24 percent, compared to 28 percent at the beginning of October.

The OSK is fully aware of this variety of opinions.

"We, as OSK, will always have a very clear stance on abortion: We demand full rights for women. But we know that our voice is just one of many and, therefore, we want a wide and open debate", Lempart said.

Poland 2050 leader Szymon Hołownia (Photo: Andrew Skowron)

Who's winning?

So, who has gained politically from the events?

The Left party got a 1 percent bump. A far-right party called Konfederacja, which supports a total ban, gained 3 percent.

But, most surprisingly, Poland 2050, a moderate-conservative movement recently created by a former presidential candidate, Szymon Hołownia, has made the most headway.

Hołownia, who has been highly active during the protests, has increased his ratings by 9 percent to 18 percent, becoming the third largest political force in the country (Poland 2050 is not a political party yet).

He is a declared Catholic, whose conservative mores are no secret.

He does not support unlimited access to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, but he is very vocal about the separation of church and state.

He seeks to end state financing of the church, to cut religion classes from school curriculums, and, perhaps most importantly, he is a new face on the political scene.

"Hołownia represents what many Catholics want to see. He is moderate, conciliatory, and not fanatical. He's taking away voters from Law and Justice and therefore he is very important in this power play", Jarosław Flis, a politics teacher at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, told this website.

According to Michał Kobosko from Poland 2050: "These protests also express discontent with the old status quo: the fight between Law and Justice and the Civic Coalition".

"We want to end with this. We are a new generation", Kobosko told EUobserver.

PiS chairman and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński kisses MP's hand (Photo: pis.org.pl)

New forces

And so, the governing party is now facing a very difficult autumn and winter.

Demonstrations aside, Poland is also seeing daily increases in Covid-19 cases breaking record after record.

"Obviously, the current protests will be used as a justification for the worsening of the pandemic. PiS will blame the opposition for that. This will serve well their narrative", Flis said.

But that is probably not enough to absolve PiS from responsibility for mismanaging the health crisis.

And plunging support is forcing politicians to question Kaczyński's ability to lead the party.

"This is not the first time that Kaczyński seems to be losing it", Flis said.

In May, Kaczyński pushed for a presidential election which did not take place due to the pandemic, but preparations for which cost the country a fortune.

He has tried to ban fur farming, antagonising his rural fan base.

He has also struggled to contain an internal coalition power struggle between Morawiecki, the moderate PM, and Zbigniew Ziobro, its hawkish justice minister.

And now this: the abortion revolution.

"Some seem to believe that Poland has a tough and strong authoritarian government. But this is not true. This is not a good year for Kaczyński", Flis said.

And, indeed, even the church has distanced itself from some of his comments.

The "church doesn't need a protective shield from the state", archbishop Wojciech Polak recently told the RMF FM radio station in response to Kaczyński.

Meanwhile, the church's popularity is also plunging due to recent paedophilia revelations, as well as the abortion fiasco.

A large part of the protests took place in front of archbishops' palaces in a number of cities.

One of the most-often searched for words in Google in Poland last week was "apostasy".

And, according to the latest opinion poll, the overall number of people with a positive opinion of the church fell by 8 points from March to October, hitting just 49 percent.

What Poland is seeing is the political activation of a new part of society - mostly young people, who are not attached to any existing political party and who do not share in the sentiments of post-communist era disputes, but who have their own agenda.

"I don't think these protests will lead to the end of the governing coalition, but, for sure, this is the end of Poland's superficial cultural consensus", Wrocław University's Mrozowicki said.

Author bio

Paulina Pacula is a freelance journalist in Poland.

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