Many feminists across Europe have shown solidarity with Polish women following a proposed legislation that would completely ban or extremely limit the right to abortion. What were the reactions in Poland? And is it possible that the issue only is used to divert public attention from other worrying developments in Polish politics?
Abortion rights in Poland
Poland at present has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe alongside Malta and Ireland. The current law, which was adopted in 1993, bans all terminations except in three cases: when the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of her pregnancy, when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (like rape or incest) or when the foetus is seriously malformed. Unlike in other countries where abortion is banned, women in Poland are not subject to a penalty for the illegal termination of a pregnancy. Nevertheless, conducting an illegal abortion is a criminal act. Forcing a woman to carry out an illegal termination of her pregnancy is also a crime.
Abortion is a controversial topic in current Polish politics. Since the Law and Justice party (PiS) won an absolute majority in Parliament in October 2015, it has waged a war on various institutions associated with a modern liberal democracy. Now activists backed by the Catholic Church want to table a citizens’ bill in Parliament that would allow abortions in only one case – if necessary to save a woman’s life. The Polish Episcopal Conference has issued a statement which encouraged the government and all citizens to support a total ban on abortion. It has been read in churches during the Sunday mass on 3rd of April which caused some of the participants to leave the church, e.g. in Gdańsk.
The petition needs 100.000 signatures to be examined by the Parliament. The bill was drafted by the activists themselves, not by the ruling party.
Thousands of people have attended protests across the country (e.g. in Warsaw, Wrocław, Cracow) against the proposed tightening of the law, with opponents launching their own plan to garner 100.000 signatures supporting a bill liberalising abortion. The counter-petition calls for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, although even its creators and supporters do not believe that it could be passed. They hope to win the chance of a parliamentary confrontation.
Danuta Wałęsa, Jolanta Kwaśniewska and Anna Komorowska – the three former Polish first ladies – denounced the proposal to tighten the country’s abortion law. Liberal lawmakers called on the current conservative president’s wife Agata Duda to take a stand on the issue, but the president’s office made it clear she would not comment.
The Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło has expressed her support for an abortion ban, but she has highlighted that this is just her private opinion. She did, however, also add that for the discussion about abortion to be constructive, it needs to include the “reasonable voice” of the Catholic Church.
The influence of the Catholic Church
But why does the Catholic Church has such a big influence in Poland, and how is this connected with the issue of abortion? Before the fall of Communism, the position of the Church was much weaker, and it did not have any actual connection to the government. The laws regarding abortion were also different: Abortion was legal in cases where the woman was experiencing “difficult living conditions”. The interpretation of this law varied in time, from a very restrictive interpretation, to one in where abortion was allowed on request.
After the change of the regime – the Church played an important role in supporting citizens during the Polish fight against Communism – the Church’s role was strengthened, and it stays strong to this day: The overwhelming majority of the country is Catholic, with almost 93% of Polish people declaring to belong to the Catholic faith, and the Catholic Church is included in the public discourse. This even includes issues not related to religion, and it includes the issue of abortion.
The symbol of a Coat Hanger
At present, Polish women are scared and angry, but determined to fight for their reproductive rights. A coat hanger has become a symbol of protests. Thousands of people are marching with them and the Prime Minister also received coat hangers by post. They symbolise the drastic and cruel tools that women will be forced to use to self-terminate a pregnancy when the government forbids legal and safe abortion. Often women put their health and life at risk when trying to induce an abortion themselves: Some use boiling water, some use wires, some use caustic substances and the list goes on.
“#dziewuchydziewuchom” – international support
Polish women are not fighting alone. Marches and protests took places in many places across Europe. Feminists from Brussels, London, Paris, Prague and many more cities are supporting Polish women. Hashtags like #popieramdziewuchy (“I support girls”) or #odzyskacwybor (“Regain the choice”) have become viral. Additional support comes from celebrities like Juliette Binoche, Milla Jovovich, British singer Rita Ora and Polish top model Anja Rubik who have expressed solidarity with the women of Poland.
A diversionary tactic?
Unfortunately, women’s issues (which are controversial topics in Polish politics) are often used to divert public attention from other aspects. Given certain developments in Poland such as the curtailing of the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal, moving the attorney general’s office into the justice ministry or the controversial law restricting ownership rights for farm land (adopted in March 2016), it seems like, once again, women’s issues are being used as a distraction. There are voices that the PiS does not deeply care about banning abortion, but that its leaders are simply adept at manipulation, using the issue of abortion as a smokescreen. When the government follows this path, it transmits the message to society that women’s issues are in fact a substitute topic.
In my opinion, the restriction of the Polish abortion law seems improbable. There are two reasons: Firstly, such a step might further weaken the Polish position on international platform, and secondly, also on a national level, it could cost the ruling party a lot of votes. Sadly, abortion remains a political issue and the actual wellbeing of Polish women is not a main point in the discussion.