„Ja, zwykły, szary człowiek, taki jak wy, wzywam was wszystkich – nie czekajcie dłużej. Trzeba zmienić tę władzę jak najszybciej, zanim doszczętnie zniszczy nasz kraj; zanim całkowicie pozbawi nas wolności”. – Piotr Szczęsny, "szary człowiek" (19.10.2017)
OPRESSED POLISH WOMEN FIGHT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
The 29th of January has marked the 100th day of abortion rights demonstrations that started after the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland ruling on the new abortion law rendered terminations due to fetus abnormalities unconstitutional. In the face of mounting protests and growing support from the European leaders, the government had decided to delay the abortion ban. Yet, not for long: on the 28th January the new law officially went into effect with a new wave of rage sweeping over the country, where reproductive rights do not seem like the only stake of this backlash against a patriarchal culture.
On the 22nd of October, the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland, consisting of 15 judges and controlled by ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), tightened what was already one of Europe’s most repressive abortion laws, firstly constituted in 1993. As the new law stands, abortions for fetal anomalies violate the Polish Constitution. Only two judges voted against the law.
Enraged by the statute, Poles went out on the streets, staging the most widespread protests Poland has seen since the fall of Communism in 1989. Defying the ban on demonstrations, for 14 nights following the ruling, Poles have been marching on the streets of big cities, carrying „I wish I could abort my government” banners. The mass demonstrations, led by All-Polish Women’s Strike (OSK – Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet), exposed much more than just a popular social discontent.
The new abortion law has been baptized as a „trigger point”, while people on the streets were chanting: ”This is War!” bearing in mind that much more than just abortion rights are at stake in Poland shaped by the PiS narrative. Having called it a revolution, Marta Lempart – one of OSK’s leaders – implied that this is not the only reason for a widespread discontent. This battle is equally fought for women’s reproductive rights as it is for the economic, social, and political freedoms of all the marginalized in Poland governed by PiS.
These are the patriarchal culture and steady erosion of democratic norms practiced by PiS that underlie observed social frustration, finding its outlet in the mass demonstrations. The politicization of the judiciary, the oppression of the LGBTQ community, and the fundamentalist religiosity – all these have been challenged by the protesters, whether it be by defacing churches or disrupting public services. The strikes are, therefore, by no means decontextualized: Poles are gathering together to protest for their democratic freedoms that – owing to the decisions of unconstitutional and far-from-democratic institutions – are being gradually taken away.
The court ruling is interpreted by many as a tactical move of a PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, to solicit support on the traditionalist right, simultaneously bypassing the Parliament, where PiS has a razor-thin majority. In turn, unexpected for the leadership turned out to be the extent of popular fury, unlike any PiS has ever seen. As many analysts anticipate, in the short-term social unrests could have been mitigated by playing along with the demands of protesters or slightly deradicalizing the proposed statutes in the response for the strikes. Yet, expeditiously growing discontent might shake the nationalist core of PiS in the long-time perspective, handicapping future decision-making.
The response of the influential decision-makers only fanned up the situation. While addressing the strikes, Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the protesters criminals. In his public speech, PM asked people to „protect the country”, which was interpreted by many as permission for violence. Similarly, the Minister of Education, Przemysław Czarnek, threatened institutions, teachers, and professors who support the protests. Effectively, many students who have propagated pro-strike behaviors were threatened to be suspended by the teachers calling them vandals and terrorists. Meanwhile, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Michał Woś, promised a harsh treatment of the marches’ organizers, threatening them with up to 8 years in prison for „exposing themselves and others to harm”.
Although only 15% of Poles admitted to be in favor of the proposed law, the PiS supporters seem to act in line with their leaders. During one of the demonstrations, the driver of a car – as it turned out later, an employee of the Internal Security Agency (ABW) – ran into two protesters. Consequently, willing to charge the ABW officer with a criminal charge, the district prosecutor ruling the case was dismissed from the investigation. In turn, the aggressor was held responsible for a mere driving violation – the Polish women have been deprived of the guarantee of security by the services most authorized to provide them.
The Polish crisis of democratic values seems to echo loudly across the European countries. The Polish parliamentarians and MPs were speaking up on the international arena, increasing social awareness. Effectively, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Iceland have become the first countries willing to implement changes in their laws in order to allow Polish women to legally terminate their pregnancies in these countries. For instance, an Icelandic deputy, Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir, supported by 18 other politicians, has just submitted a draft resolution to the Icelandic parliament, allowing people who have lost the right to legal abortion within their own country, the ability to take advantage of free abortion in Iceland. That procedure would be free for Polish women, requiring only an EHIC card. Similarly, in the Czech Republic, a spot well-known in Poland for their abortion practices, Czech Pirate Party appealed to the Czech government to provide Polish women with the possibility of legal abortion in the country.
In response to the international criticism and domestic protests, the Polish government prevented October’s court’s decision from coming into play by postponing its publication. No protesting Pole, however, considered it good news, but rather a simple practice of buying time – time for the new law to be taken down from the headlines of every newspaper both in the country and abroad. Additional time has been also necessary for the government to take any safety measures, plan strategies, and organize the country before the imposition of a national state of emergency due to COVID-19. Following on from that, people’s hands have been tied: if on the streets, every protestant could have been arrested right away.
Anxiously awaiting the perfect moment, the government eventually used the time of a temporary ceasefire and fired a shot only in the last days of January, bringing the new abortion law into existence. In effect, yet another cry of protests sparked off an increasingly heated debate among the opposition. In the hope of gaining the bulge on the establishment, the Civic Platform – Poland’s main opposition party – presented the women’s rights project this Thursday (February 18).
The Civic Platform’s Women’s Rights Package assumes free access to contraception and in-vitro procedures, state-funded prenatal testing, support to families raising children with disabilities, as well as sex education – all these considered fundaments of conscious motherhood and prerequisites for any inner sense of security a woman has. In addition, this set of assumptions would be further followed by the right to abortion under „highly adverse circumstances” up until the 12th week of pregnancy and only after consultation with a doctor or a psychologist.
According to the Civic Platform executives, the project is to be a basis of a new social contract that favors the will of the majority, all the while rejecting radical solutions. As some suggest, the phrase „highly adverse circumstances” functions predominantly as a rhetorical figure intended to appease a more conservative faction of the party that was out of the picture all through the one-week-discussions over the package. The forecasts are, the Civic Platform will soon dispose of the more traditional politicians, taking a turn to the left by using the issue of abortion exclusively as an excuse to steer the course of actions away from the right-wing. The project seems to be operating within the framework of a purely political strategic move, ultimately treating women’s bodies as mere objects on the political battleground.
No project in a democratic and politically free country should constitute the premise for inalienable human rights, and no political rule should act as a substitute for the voice of conscience and free will of a woman. That is why, as long as fundamental reproductive rights are not granted, Polish women will have to roll up their sleeves.