Polish Women Take to the Streets

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Polish women marching against attempts to further restrict access to abortion. The sign reads “Women’s Strike”

Following an October 22 Polish Supreme Court decision cutting off the main route to legal abortion in the country, Polish women, and many supportive men and children, took to the streets in the biggest mass mobilization in Poland in 40 years. The law in force since 1993—already the strictest in Europe except for Malta’s, which bans abortion altogether—allows termination of pregnancy in three cases: danger to the mother’s life or health; suspicion that the pregnancy resulted from a crime (e.g., rape or incest); or severe disability or incurable disease of the fetus. The court ruled this third reason, which accounted for 98 percent of the 1100 legal abortions performed in Poland last year, unconstitutional.

Demonstration organizers expected a similar turnout to the large “black protests”—in which women wearing black predominated—of four years ago (referenced in my article on the right-wing government’s consolidation of power in the February 2018 Public i), which forced the defeat in parliament at that time of a proposed law to only allow abortion to save the life of the mother. But the protests at the end of October were several times larger still: over 400,000 in more than 400 cities and towns across Poland. Crowds chanted “Sex is not a crime, pregnancy is not a punishment, if I want an abortion I will have it!” A push for abortion “coming outs” brought women to microphones and megaphones to publicly attest to how having one—usually illegally, or performed abroad—had brought relief and improved their lives. Remarkable was the support of other groups that one would never have expected, like farmers and taxi drivers, who used their tractors and taxis to help block or inhibit traffic, and soccer fans—although organized soccer “hooligans” joined other right-wing toughs to attack protesters, confronted in some cases by Polish Antifa. Two journalists from the liberal national daily Gazeta Wyborcza were also assaulted by right-wingers.

The push to ban and criminalize abortion in Poland comes primarily from the Catholic Church, dominant in the country and a primary component of Poles’ historic identity (see my article on the rise of the Right in Poland in the December 2017 Public i). In this view, promulgated by the nationalist government, being Polish equals following Catholic dogma equals relegating Polish women to a subordinate role, with motherhood their highest calling. Thus Jarosław Kaczińsky, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS by its Polish initials), declared that the aim of the protests was “to destroy Poland and end the history of the Polish nation.” But while an overwhelming majority of Poles do identify as Catholic, the proportion that actually attends weekly mass is dropping, from 60 percent in the 1990s to around 40 percent today. Polish women are “voting with their uteruses” against the Church’s reproductive vision: the number of abortions procured on the black market or abroad (especially in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria), without restrictions or legal hoops to jump through, is estimated at 150–200,000 per year—over a hundred times the legal number. This despite the fact that a black market abortion, in a strange convergence of neoliberal economics and conservative practice, costs about $1000, an average monthly salary; prices for legal ones abroad are falling to less than half that in cheaper countries such as Slovakia, but with travel and other expenses are still a great burden to most Polish women. In spite of the church’s attempts to make contraception harder to come by and to diminish and skew sex education in schools, Poland has a fertility rate of 1.4 per woman, among the lowest in the world.

This fact points to a coming demographic crisis in Poland: labor shortages, an aging population, and too few young, productive hands to support it. This is a concern across Europe, but especially in Eastern Europe, from which large numbers (over a million, in Poland’s case) of young people are seeking better opportunities in more prosperous Western Europe, and where immigration of the millions of clamoring “others” from the Middle East and Africa is undesired (also on the part of would-be refugees and immigrants, who prefer Germany, France or Great Britain). East European governments are desperately providing carrots in the form of subsidies and increased parental leave to increase birthrates among their citizens; Poland’s is the only one to pair these with the stick of (attempted) further abortion restrictions.

Women donning “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes disrupt Catholic Mass in Łodz, Poland in late October

Feminism in Poland, and across the region, has developed differently than in Western Europe and the US. Polish women were among the first in the world to gain the right to vote, right at the founding of the first Polish Republic in November, 1918. A 1932 law was the first in Europe to make abortion legal beyond purely medical reasons (the “as result of a criminal act” provision). As of 1956, the law provided for the procedure practically on demand, which become the norm as in most Communist countries; by the end of the state socialist period, about 500,000 per year were being performed, easily, safely, and cheaply. The post-1989 “liberation” of the Church in the political sphere led to the drastic 1993 restrictions. Communist ideology provided for the theoretical equality of women, greatly elevating their participation in many “male” working spheres (as tractor drivers, doctors, dentists, etc.—though not in the realm of politics), while leaving the “private sphere” mostly untouched. Thus social attitudes, and the “double burden” of almost universal participation in the workforce plus practically all domestic work, remained essentially unchanged. But the last three decades of increasing “Westernization” and globalization have allowed “Western” feminism, previously seen as an alien import, to gradually make substantial inroads in Poland as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. This is now evident in the donning by many protesters of garb from The Handmaid’s Tale, and in growing connections to the LGBTQ community and its issues, such as violence against Pride marches, the effective banning of adoptions by gay couples, and a propaganda offensive against “homosexual ideology.”

The powerful movement against (further) abortion restrictions in Poland is part of a broader struggle over civic rights—to organize, assemble, utilize the media and democratically enact change—in countries under authoritarian “populist” rule in Eastern Europe. In Belarus, massive demonstrations against the theft of the August elections by longtime strongman leader Alexander Lukashanko have featured all-women contingents to try to mitigate police violence, or shame those who do employ it. An assault on educational autonomy is one of the newest threats. The University of Gdansk, which declared a “Rector’s Day” to free students and faculty from classes and allow them to join or support the October 28 women’s strike, and other institutions of higher education seen to be supportive of the protests, face threats and investigations; there have also been calls to investigate schoolteachers who may have encouraged students to join in. In Hungary, recent weeks have seen tens of thousands take the streets to oppose a government attempt to take control of the University for Theater and Film Arts—it should focus more on “the nation, the homeland, and Christianity”—with female students prominent in the movement.

Belarusian women, wearing white, protest dictatorship, August, 2020

But this movement, in Poland and perhaps beyond, is aiming for more than the often tentative stances—based on ideas of rule of law, anti-corruption and free markets—of liberal opposition parties and European Union elites. The idea of a women’s strike, not just at work or school but also at home, pushes for a deeper engagement in fundamentally changing women’s lives. The very “uncivic” ubiquitous rally slogan “Get the fuck out!” embodies this attitude. Recent fractures in the PiS governing coalition, and the strains of the COVID crisis, with the virus spreading out of control across the region, have both spurred the government to employ the symbolic politics of Catholic conservatism, as a distraction from its failures in dealing with the pandemic,  and left it in a vulnerable position. A change of US administrations also should help—on the same day as the Polish Supreme Court decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a virtual ceremony for the 32 signatories (including Poland, of course, as well as Hungary—the only participating EU members—and Belarus) of the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration. A new report cites millions of dollars of aid to European anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ efforts—certainly including in Poland—and intervention in dozens of European court cases by Trump-connected groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom. The Polish Supreme Court decision is currently awaiting official publication to become the law of the land; the protests, and the broader movement for change, continue. Pro-choice women and their supporters in the US would do well to take a cue from the Poles and take to the streets here as well.

This activist’s sign shows Polish women are no longer willing to “play nice”

About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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