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CWA # 432, 21 February 2021
The near-total ban on abortions in Poland was put in effect from 27 January 2021. Despite the freezing conditions and the restrictions on movement due to the pandemic, protests erupted in the country for three consecutive days since the ban was put in force. The protests began on 29 January, and while also marking 100 days since the constitutional tribunal court in Poland first handed down the ruling, Warsaw saw Polish and LGBTQ+ rainbow flags being waved at the protests. The protesters also brandished the red lightning symbol used by the group Women’s Strike, which is known to be the main organisation behind the protests.
Abortion law in Poland: The new changes in 2021
The change in the law in 2021, states that abortions may only be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman's life is in danger and bars the termination of pregnancies with foetal defects. However, in the early years of nations legalising abortions, Poland was the first country in Europe outside the Soviet Union to legalize abortion in cases of rape and threat to maternal health, in the year 1932. A 1993 law on abortion in Poland allowed only people with justifiable suspicion that the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the life or a serious threat to the health of the mother or that the fetus is irreversibly damaged, or that the pregnancy resulted from an illegal act, which is now modified.
There are fewer than 2,000 legal abortions that are done in Poland every year. However, women’s groups estimate that an additional 200,000 Polish women choose to abort either illegally or go abroad for the same. The aim of the abortion-rights activists now is to ensure that their efforts trigger a large social debate, which, they hope will allow them to place on record that abortion should be safe and legal; because women would choose to terminate pregnancies if they wished to, regardless of what the law says. While the government holds that the ban will only halt “eugenic abortions,” the enforcement would essentially force women to carry on non-viable pregnancies, unless they seek extreme or unsafe options of termination.
The Green Handkerchief impact
The protests were filled with symbols and flags that are representative of gender rights; LGBTQ+ flags were waved along with the Polish flags during the protests, women brandished the red lightning symbol used by the Women’s Strike group which is the main organisation behind the protests. The protests included slogans to send a strong message against the law. “You have blood on your hands,” “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” “the revolution has a uterus,” “my body, my choice,” are some of the placards that were seen during the protests. Participants of the protests also wore green handkerchiefs, which were a symbol of abortion rights activists in Argentina where abortion was legalised last month, around their necks. Some protesters even entered the premises of the constitutional court that issued the ruling, following which, several protesters were arrested.
The intensity of the protests reduced after the leader of the Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart was detained. As of 2019, Poland has 52 per cent women population among their 38.4 million people, with 29 per cent, that is, 132 out of 460 seats held by women. The small representation of women and the negligible role played by them in legislation-making is reflected in the passing of the law in Poland.
Local to Global
In a predominantly Catholic nation, fewer than 2,000 legal abortions were performed in Poland each year, the majority of which were fetal malformations. Broadly, the protests in Poland can be seen from the prism of a rallying cry in the new feminist internationalism that focuses on better public services for care, social housing, universal health care, and wage justice.
Globally, amid the myriad protests for women's rights to decisions of their own bodies, problems can be placed on a wide spectrum. Until recently, women were penalized for bearing more than one child in China, and in Ecuador, they continue to be imprisoned for choosing to abort. In India, Armenia, or Hong Kong, the practise of sex-selective abortion have been known to be rampant.
Contextually, abortion rights can be seen as an attempt by authoritarian nationalists or hard-handed government systems using women rights as conduits for the production of national/ religious identity and honour. In Poland, the relationship between the Church and the state is governed by an agreement signed in 1993 between Warsaw and the Holy See that says the two are independent of the influence of each other, but in reality, one of the biggest complaints of the youth that are protesting, “there is a strong connection between the two,” with an evident connection of the church with the legal system. Many Poles, particularly young people on social media, often complain of the Church’s increasing reach into other areas of life.
"Get your rosaries off my ovaries"
The ruling party in Poland sees the Church as a repository of the country’s moral teachings. Restricting abortion is seen by the law's critics as the latest attack on social freedoms by a right-wing government that disdains Western liberal values, uses homophobic rhetoric and has eroded protections for the LGBTQ community.
The announcement in October 2020, saw a strong backlash from society, hence the choice of abruptly placing the law in effect could be to ensure that it is the “least bad time.” The protests however still hold the potential to turn anti-government as it did 100 days ago.
The above commentary is also published on our exclusive IPRI portal, a platform with a special focus on peace and conflict issues.
About the author
Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Her thesis is on Militarisation in Outer Space. Her other interests include China and East Asia, Political-Economy, Politics of New Technologies, and recently, Europe.
Abigail Miriam Fernandez