The Strikes in Poland Are Aiming At So Much More Than Rights to Abortion

CW: abortion, mentions of rape and incest

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and are not representative of the views of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

If you pay attention to the news, you will have heard about the mass strikes that erupted in Poland in October 2020.  Labelled by media as women’s strikes, it was one of the biggest protests in Poland since the solidarity mass movement that led to the abolishment of communist regime in 1989.

To give some background information, Poland is a highly Catholic country where the Catholic Church possesses the ability to shape government policies, especially when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and women. This includes access to abortion. This power was engrained within Polish society during the interwar years (1918-39) and after the removal of communist regime.

The latter even had a tremendous impact upon the rights to abortion. During the transition period, the Church lobbied its agenda to make abortion limited to cases of incest, rape, foetal defect, and endangerment to the mother’s life. Even then, doctors were able to refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of their religious beliefs.  Abortion rights and any hope of positive change for women were shattered further by the election of the highly populist, right-wing, conservative party Law and Justice (PIS) in 2015, whose political agenda is based on conservative and Catholic family values.

This made Poland’s abortion law one of the strictest in Europe. Furthermore, over the years, the policy has been criticised by various human rights and non-governmental organisations such as the Amnesty International and the EU. 

One of the biggest protests against these laws occurred in 2016. It was known as the Black Protest (Czarny Protest), which managed to prevent PIS passing a bill that would completely ban access to abortion. However, since then, undemocratic changes have been made by the government. These changes include the encroachment onto independent judiciary and allowing government members to elect judges that were more likely to support the political agenda of PIS.

Thus, it is not surprising that on 22nd of October 2020, the Polish constitutional court (dominated by the PIS sympathisers) ruled rights to abortion in cases of foetal defects as unconstitutional. This ruling was devastating. Abortion in the case of foetal defect is the reason behind the majority of abortion cases within Poland. Therefore, access to abortion has been made almost impossible. On top of this, while abortion is still permitted in the cases of rape, incest or if the person who was pregnant was at risk, these are at risk of being taken away by the current government.

Protests erupted all over the country as many reached a breaking point. It also attracted international media attention. Solidarity demonstrations occurred in many countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Czech Republic, and the USA. Some prominent international figures, such as Bernie Sanders, also expressed his solidarity for the Women’s Strike.

For the first time, demonstrators used the opportunity to attack churches and religious sermons to showcase their resentment against their overwhelming power over the government’s policies.  According to the statistics, 410 protests erupted across the nation with an estimate of 430,000 people participating. Despite a reduction in news coverage, the protests regarding the constitutional ruling and against the ruling party continue to this day.

What’s the government response? Jarosław Kaczyński, president of the ruling party, responded to these mainly peaceful protests by encouraging right-wing nationalist groups to attack the demonstrators in the name of ‘protecting church properties’ and calling the protest organisers ‘criminals’. Police were encouraged to use pepper spray and handle protestors violently. MPs and journalists, strators in the name of ‘protecting church properties’ and calling the protest organisers ‘criminals’. Police were encouraged to use pepper spray and handle protestors violently. MPs and journalists, who were supposed to be protected by political impunity, were attacked. Moreover, certain ministerial bodies, such as the education ministry, decided to punish teachers and pupils who supported the women’s strike in the name of prevention of ‘hooliganism’ and ‘spread of epidemic danger.’ In other words, the government, through various means, tried to silence those who had every right to protest a policy introduced by the government. But that requires respect of democracy, respect which PIS does not have.

The truth is that this is much more than a women’s strikes against the further restriction on abortion rights. It is not just women affected by this, but everyone who does not fit to the entrenched, made-up Polish identity that is based on Catholicism and its authority. It is a fight against tyrannical tendencies of a government that very much threatens the existence of democracy in Poland. According to Marta Lempart (abortion rights activist and founder of the all-Poland Women’s Strike): “It started with abortion, now we fight for freedom, for everything, for the rule of law.” So, is this fight against long-standing patriarchy? Yes. But it is also a fight against a right-wing, fascist government disguised as a protector of ‘family values’ and so called ‘God’s natural design for humankind.’

Image courtesy of Duncan Shaffer.

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