Black Friday in Poland: Why thousands took to the street in defiance of the government

By Haya Wakil

Thousands of people in Poland came out on the streets dressed in black to protest against the recent bill passed by the conservative government and the dominant Catholic Church. The draft bill known as “Stop Abortion” was introduced in the Parliament by the anti-abortion rights group known as Life and Family Foundation.

According to Agence France-Presse, it had gathered around 800,000 signatures which deemed it fit to be introduced in the Parliament. When a similar attempt had been made by a competing citizen initiative that proposed to tone down the abortion laws, it was rejected by the legislative assembly. Currently, the assembly has a right-wing Law and Justice Party in the majority. 

Demands of the activists and the current status

Abortion in Poland is illegal except under three circumstances: rape, incest danger to mother’s health, or irreversible damage to the foetus. Even access to contraception is very strict, and the only apparent contraception is the condom. Under a legal “conscious clause”, doctors and pharmacists can deny birth control prescriptions.

The anti-abortion activists want a total ban on abortion even in cases of rape, incest and danger to mother’s life. The proposed bill makes abortion punishable for a five-year term in prison. Even the doctors will face criminal charges if they perform an abortion. The supporters call abortion an act of “butcher”. The Polish Catholics state their respect for every human being irrespective of its form and time of existence and have asked the lawmakers to show their respect as well. The government had even proposed that the foetuses will be “baptised, buried and be given a name”.

Jacek Januszewski, a member of Life and Family Foundation, said that human rights are discriminatory as they are only enjoyed by the healthy and privileged, and the disabled and ones in the prenatal stage are denied this set of rights.

Although the government has not officially stated any support for the proposed bill, party leaders including the Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki have individually indicated their support.

Even back in October 2016 the ruling party had attempted to ban abortion but was countered by about 100,000 women who went on strike across the country in more than 140 cities, towns and villages.

The lower chamber of the parliament has approved the bill after due debate and discussion, and now has now passed it on to the Parliamentary committee for further consideration.

United in protests

The Catholic Church finds its supporters in significant numbers in the government. But lately, the popularity of the Church has been fading as Poles have begun to challenge the Church’s moral leadership.

Save the Women, which is a leading group for pro-abortion, has argued that the current law is very oppressive to women. The Polish opposition party, Nowoczesna (Modern) supports groups like ‘Save the Women’ and their cause and have termed the current regulations as “medieval”, denying women her right to make choices.

During protests, many protesters were seen holding coat hangers that symbolised back-street abortions. Women have also resorted to social media to voice their opinion. Incidentally, their choice to wear black dress signifies mourning the death of choice of women.

A survey conducted by IBRiS in January, published by Huffington Post, showed that 70 percent of Poles are against the proposed restriction.

Around 200 NGOs have pledged support in writing and have publicly appealed the Polish government to abide by International Human Rights obligations and place women’s health as a top priority. The Office of the UNHCR has also condemned the decision.

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is known for its autocratic measures like curbing the independence of the courts, and making questionable remarks on the Holocaust.

History of the issue

Unfortunately, this issue of abortion has been politicised over the years. In 1956, the communist rule in Poland first legalised abortion, and for a number of years, it was leading in championing the liberal rights of women in Europe.

The church in Poland played a decisive role against the Communist rule, and with the collapse of Soviet Union, the communist rule also came to an end in Poland. The state quickly embraced Catholic identity which was suffering suppression for a long time. With the backing of the church, abolition was made illegal in 1993 except for rape, incest and health issues.

The Polish women have never bowed down to the repressive bill introduced in the parliament time and again. But the government very cleverly waits for the protest to slow down and then introduces a new bill which would have a less outcry.

Poland is one of the few countries in Europe to have such repressive laws for women. Polish women are forced to seek abortion abroad because of the constraints in the home country, and many of them often take place illegally.

Other European countries

In Germany, women have to undergo a compulsory three-day waiting period and counselling session and are not allowed to abort after 12 weeks of pregnancy except in case of medical emergency of extreme circumstance. Same is the case in the Netherlands, but women can abort till 24 weeks. Even Belgium has a waiting period. In Finland and Denmark, abortion is available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Hence we see that even though the Europeans countries might have been very liberal in their abortion laws, there exist certain exceptions and requirements that do not give a woman the complete right to exercise her right and choice.