By Róża Modzelewska

On 22nd of October, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled “eugenic abortion” to be unconstitutional, consequently banning abortion in almost all circumstances. 

Eugenic abortion is the termination of the pregnancy due to the health of the foetus, meaning out of the 1110 legal abortions performed in 2019, 1074 happened on the ground of ‘irreparable fetus impairment’ and would now be illegal.

Since 1993, when the so called “abortion compromise” was agreed upon, there were only three grounds on which abortion was legal in Poland:

a. When the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy.

b. When the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, such as rape.

c. When there is a high probability of a severe and irreversible fetal impairment .

It is described as a “compromise” because, as has already been reminding people last year, the decision was never made by consensus. In 1993, women were not consulted, politicians were divided, and the society was not particularly willing either. There are many opinions on why the “compromise” even made it to the house those 27 years ago and why it is still standing, many centering around the strong influence of the Catholic Church on the state.  

Since that memorable Thursday, women and their allies have been protesting both on the streets and online in Poland and worldwide. On the 30th of October, Warsaw saw the biggest anti-government protest since 1989 with over 100,000 people in the capital alone. Protests have taken place in over 150 towns and cities in the country, of which 90% took place in towns with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, and in 60 cities abroad. 

Businesses are donating to the Women’s Strike organization, people are giving away tea to protesters from their windows, the police force and medics are applauding the protesters and even the most unlikely of allies – Polish farmers – have shown their support.

However, as much as the issue seems to have united some people, Polish society has also never seemed more hostile towards its own members. The criticism of the protesters and their actions is widespread even among the people actively disapproving of the government. 

Examples of such critiques include; It is irresponsible to gather in crowds during a pandemic, the main phrase of the protest should not be a swear word, people should leave the Church alone, and then, of course are those who agree with the decision.

We’re seeing division amongst the protesters themselves. There are a myriad of reasons why people have taken to the streets. While some are advocating for full decriminalization of abortion or going back to the old compromise, there are also people joining for reasons unrelated to the reproductive rights themselves. 

Many are seeing this as an opportunity to protest the government or the tribunal which itself is not seen as constitutional, and even more are dissatisfied with the handling of the pandemic by the government. As much as all those reasons are important and extremely valid, the issue of abortion is being slowly pushed towards the back of the demands queue put forward by citizens’ organizations. The division in the opposition and lack of clear vision about what we want to achieve might ended up costing us the momentum.

It feels like we are watching the downfall of Polish society in real time and the absence of leaders being able or even willing to bring people together is stark. The opposition is quick to try and ride on the back of the women’s strike, the left party shows a troubling lack of leadership or competence, and the ruling coalition is more focused on its internal disagreements and pleasing the Polish Episcopate than trying to maintain some semblance of order in the country. The vice prime minister and longtime leader of the PiS party – Jarosław Kaczynski in his address to the nation, called for “protection of the churches at all cost” leading to militia groups showing up to protests and attacking people.

Now the president’s new “compromise” seems like a slap to the face and something that should not even be on a table. Andrzej Duda has proposed a “solution” in the form of allowing abortion in the case of fetus impairments being lethal to the foetus. Anyone can tell this is not anywhere near even going back to the old compromise, and what is important to highlight is that this is no compromise or consensus at all– it is simply ‘allowing’ women to abort a fetus that is or will soon be dead. The fact that this is seen as a compromise and is discussed as a concession is quite frankly terrifying. If nothing else about the situation of Polish women stays with you, let the one thing be that had no one taken to the streets – be it because of the pandemic or even the lack of political engagement – pregnant persons in Poland would have been (and might still be) forced to give birth to a dead or a dying child.

The women’s issue has been left off of the agenda long enough – first because abolishing the communist rule was more important, then because joining the EU was more important and after because the governments are either willing to align with or are scared of upsetting the power that is the Catholic Church.

The solidarity experienced across the country and pouring in from abroad – both by Polonia (the name for the Poles living abroad) as well as foreigners is heartwarming. But the truth is: in a democracy, especially one which is part of the European Union, we should not be relying on people taking to the streets to make sure their human rights are not stripped away.

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