By Monika Onyszkiewicz, FairTrade Polska
(This article was already published in our November 2020 newsletter, it has a new up-to-date introduction)
Although it is difficult to imagine, but in the 21st century Poland, part of the European Union, does not provide basic reproductive rights for its citizens. 30 years ago – in 1993 – a law was passed in Poland restricting access to safe abortion. Today, in 2023, it is much worse than it was at the beginning of the change – the deaths of women who have been denied abortions clearly show that women’s lives and health are not a value for politicians. The demonstrations and protests that have passed through Poland in connection with the changes in the law – starting in 2016, through to the most recent one related to the deaths of women at risk of pregnancy – have unfortunately not led to anything constructive or safe. From the first of October 2022, the law requiring doctors (public and private) to register pregnancies came into force. At the same time, an opinion poll done at the same time shows that 70% of the public wants access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Where this will take us we do not know, but one thing is certain-it has been 30 years too long.
For a better understanding of the current events in Poland, it is worth explaining the context of the right to abortion in the last 30 years, i.e. since the change of regime from communism to democracy in 1989. Last week (23/10/2020), the so-called Constitutional court (composed of judges elected in an inconsistent way with the Constitution, whom legality is being questioned by both the opposition and the EU). Poland’s constitutional court ruled that abortion due to fetal defects was unconstitutional. It challenged the law in place for almost 27 years, the so-called ‘abortion compromise’. In 1993, a law was established that allowed for the end of pregnancy in concrete situations – a rape pregnancy/incest, a pregnancy in which the foetus has severe developmental defects, a pregnancy threatening the health and life of a woman.
The transformational changes – the transition from a communist system to a democratic system – required many laws to be rewritten. This work was carried out by political circles supported by the Catholic Church, but also oriented towards the West, democracy and the liberal market. If, therefore, the law agreed at the time was called a compromise, it was a compromise between the Catholic Church and the politicians of the time. The Church declared that it would support Poland’s efforts to join the European Union (for some, seen as a rotten west/destruction of our independence), while politicians gave the Church influence in key cultural and social spheres of people’s lives. The issue of reproductive rights is a key area. Indeed, the law agreed at the time was not a ‘compromise’ for or among the citizens, but a compromise between two players. There was no voice of women. If you combine very restrictive law with less expenditure on health care (access to doctors), the introduction of religion in schools, the lack of sexual education and the introduction of a conscience clause for doctors it clearly looks like women’s hell. Talking about clause of conscience among doctors in the whole of Podkarpackie Voivodship, there is no possibility of carrying out a legal abortion. No hospital will do this by invoking the conscientious objection clause. Officially, there is only app. 1000 (one thousand) abortions in Poland every year. 98% due to irreversible fetal defects. It’s obvious that the underworld is flourishing. And the consequences are very hard on women : on their health, social life, finances, emotional pain. They take care of their children, they cannot work because they will lose their benefits, and they have no support from the State in the costs of rehabilitation if they have decided to give birth to children requiring care. What is important is that the Catholic Church, following Poland’s accession to the EU, has directed its support to political parties which are conservative. Hence we are facing the strengthening of the right wing in Poland with a strong nationalist ideology and therefore the reinforcement of the hierarchy and conservative order of the State.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), said in 2016 that it would lead to a change in the law so that “even cases of difficult pregnancies, when a child is condemned to death or deformed, they must end in childbirth, so that the child can be baptised, buried and have a name’. This situation led to an avalanche of protests (Autumn 2016). At that time, politicians retreated to a safe field, having returned this spring (2020) with the idea of introducing an amendment to the Sejm. While it failed, they used the side door – a ruling of the Constitutional Court without any public disscussion. An institution that has been ruined and replaced in contravention of the law and planted with puppets. The process of destroying the triple division of power initiated in 2015 is now useful for the government. Today, Poland is no longer a law-abiding country with a triple division of power. Since PiS came to power, Poland has turned from a leader in democratic transformations in Central Europe to a country striving for authoritarianism. We are currently ranked 37th out of 41 democratic countries. Only Turkey, Hungary, Romania and Mexico are behind us. Currently, Jarosław Kaczyński, the chief designer of the deconstruction of our state, can do almost anything with the help of the Constitutional Tribunal’s jurisprudence.
What happened on October 23, after the ruling of the Court was a one-drop too many. It was an attack on women’s autonomy, the destruction of something that was bad anyway (an abortion compromise) and a change to a law that de facto accepts torture and violates the fundamental right of every human being – the right to self-determination. Deputy Prime Minister Jadwiga Emilewicz stated a few days ago that ‘a woman’s freedom ends when she becomes pregnant‘. When this attitude of the ruling party towards women is combined with the recently revealed scandals of covering up paedophilia and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, it gives a huge charge to the general public to take the streets and say: Get the fuck out.
This is the main slogan of the current protests. 30 years ago women were protesting with the slogan: The frustration has reached its zenith and in a situation where for many years now a government of elderly men (politicians, priests) has been teaching women where their freedom is and what their role in society is, what they can and cannot be or do, women took the streets and in blunt words they shouted what they thought. I saw a lot of young girls at the protests – teenagers, students. They are pissed off and shout about it loudly. We are also forty-years-old women and the generation of our mothers. More social groups join the protests, there are men, entrepreneurs, activists from the Extinction Rebelion movement, and artists. Absolutely all Poland is with us. The policemen also hear voices, they do not want to thoughtlessly pacify the protests because they identify with the slogans. Last week, female policewomen refused to go to suppress the protest, identifying themselves with the slogans. Unfortunately, Jarosław Kaczyński, in his speech, fuels the conflict by presenting the current state of society as an attack of the church, an attack of the nation and calls on society to defend itself. Here is what he said in his speech, confusingly similar to the speech of General Jaruzelski in 1981 announcing the introduction of martial law in Poland: “This attack is to destroy Poland. Bring the forces whose power will end the history of the Polish nation to triumph. You have to oppose it. It is the duty of the state, but also ours, the citizens. In particular, we must defend the churches. At all costs. I call on PiS members and those who support us. “
What’s important in that case is that The decision has still not been published, despite a Monday (2/11) deadline, and as such has not entered into force. It gives a power to manipulate and play with public protesting every day on streets all around Poland – in small cities, and also in the big ones.
Only in my city (Wrocław), pseudo-fans attacked journalists in protest, but the prosecutor’s office refused to initiate the case, releasing hooligans (thanks to the intervention of the prosecutor general Ziobro himself). Similar situations in Warsaw are showing as well that the government escalate the rage. The situation is extremely difficult due to COVID-19 and the terrible state of health care in Poland. The government is not prepared for the second wave of the virus, doctors are frustrated and powerless. The government in its activities is chaotic and corrupt (a separate thread of public procurement for medical equipment). The incidence is growing, yesterday (4/11) new restrictions have been announced. At the same time, the initiative of the Nationwide Strajk Women led by Marta Lempart creates postulates and creates an advisory body composed of experts. The main postulate is the dismissal of the government and the rebuilding of the social order. The next days and weeks will show what comes out of it. Currently, support for the ruling party is falling (it used to be about 42% now it is 31%), but unfortunately the opposition is also broken and not cooperating. The Women’s Strike led by Lempart and the women theirselves are hope. I hope!