Pictures of thousands of protestors in Poland have flooded the internet following a decision by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal which has virtually removed all avenues for abortion.
Thursday’s ruling determined that abortions in cases where “prenatal tests or other medical indications indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible foetal impairment or an incurable life-threatening disease” are unconstitutional.
This leaves only pregnancies resulting from rape, incest or when carrying to term is a direct threat to the mother’s life as eligible for termination. The now unconstitutional context was a part of the so-called “abortion compromise” in 1993.
Protests began soon after the ruling was announced with citizens gathering in front of the court in Warsaw, moving to protest in front of the headquarters of the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) during the night. The protests in the capital culminated in the early hours of Friday morning outside the residence of the Deputy Prime Minister and de facto leader of the country, Jarosław Kaczyński, where police used tear-gas. Police justify their actions by pointing to provocation from the protestors who allegedly threw rocks at the officers assembled outside of the residence.
Protests continued into Friday with images of mask-wearing protestors circulating the internet, showing impassioned speeches and slogans across in major cities in Poland, including Warsaw, Szczecin, Krakow and Wroclaw. Many held signs reading “Keep your theology out of my biology”, “I wish I could abort my government”, and “I don’t want to live in Gilead”, referring to the totalitarian state depicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
This ruling is not the first assault on women’s reproductive rights by the Law and Justice government. Coming to power in the presidential election of 2015, the party first made attempts to limit abortion rights in 2016, prompting the so-called “Women’s Strike” where Poles took to the streets wearing all black. Perhaps emboldened by the recent victory of incumbent nationalist President Andrzej Duda and the restrictions on meetings of more than 10 due to the dramatic rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, this ruling has been widely regarded as banning abortion.
The Constitutional Tribunal has faced criticism from both within and beyond Poland, initially following the appointment of Julia Przyłębska to President in 2016 despite the Polish Constitution stating that the position can only be elected by judges on the tribunal, rather than by Presidential appointment.
Poland, has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe and already conducts very few abortions. Of the 1,110 abortions taking place in 2019, 98% were due to severe fetal deformity, grounds which yesterday’s ruling deemed unconstitutional. With estimates stating that around 100,000 Polish women already seek abortions abroad, experts and activists alike have expressed concerns that this will only push women to more dangerous means of terminating unwanted pregnancies.
This decision, and the pursuit of more restrictive abortion laws by PiS, does not seem to match up with the opinion of the majority of Poles. According to a survey conducted by Gazeta Wyborcza in 2019, 58% of Poles support a woman’s right to an abortion at 12 weeks, compared to the 35% who oppose this view. According to data provided to the newspaper Rzeszpospolitej the same year, only 14.9% supported stricter abortion laws.
Poland has faced strong condemnation from across Europe, with the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, writing on Twitter that “removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in #Poland amount to a ban & violates #HumanRights”.
In a statement put out by the Oxford University Polish Society, students called out “this divisive decision” as being “pushed exactly when we need to be united more than ever, as the COVID pandemic continues to pose a significant challenge to our country”. The society also highlighted that “the timing made it impossible for the citizens to express their criticism of the decision by participating in nationwide protests without the fear of persecution on the basis of the new coronavirus-era restrictions”.
A gathering protesting the ruling will take place outside the Radcliffe Camera at 8pm on Sunday 25 October, with the society asking that participants wear black clothing and comply with social distancing rules.
Protests in Poland are set to continue into next week.