Great Britain

How Poland’s abortion protests became a fight for democracy

One day in April a few years ago, I made the six-hour train journey to Berlin from Warsaw, Poland, where I am based as a journalist. The next morning, I was up at dawn to catch the train to Prenzlau, a German town a one-and-a-half hour journey north-east of Berlin. From the train station, I walked up the road to a grand old building that looked more like a manor than a hospital. By 9am, I was sitting in a waiting room on the corridor where abortions are performed.

I was only there to research an article, but many Polish women had made the journey to Prenzlau before me. Poland has the toughest abortion controls in Europe, with just three exceptions: when the mother’s life is in danger, in cases of rape or incest, or when there are severe and irreversible foetal defects. In other cases, women seek an abortion underground or in countries where it is more easily available. Prenzlau’s particular appeal for Polish women seeking to terminate a pregnancy that did not fall into one of those three categories was a Polish gynaecologist carrying out abortions at the hospital, who could help them in their own language.

Now a court ruling in Poland threatens to make these rules, which date back to 1993, even stricter. On 22 October the country's Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion in cases of severe foetal defects, which currently account for almost all the legal abortions carried out in Poland, is unconstitutional.

The ruling, which will become law as soon as it is officially published, has prompted some of the largest protests across Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Despite the surge in coronavirus cases this autumn, crowds of demonstrators – largely young women – have filled the streets of Warsaw. The red lightning bolt, the symbol of the protests, has become a feature of the urban landscape, on the walls of buildings and on posters in windows. A takeaway coffee I ordered at a Warsaw café even came with lightning-shaped latte art.

The tribunal’s decision is good news for the minority of Poles who consider the current rules to be too soft, including some politicians in the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. In 2016 PiS’s chairman Jarosław Kaczyński said that his party will “strive to ensure that even very difficult pregnancies, when the child is condemned to death, is severely deformed, will end in birth, so that the child can be christened, buried, given a name”.

Kaczyński’s words were not an isolated remark. They are part of a wider natalist push by right-wing populists not just in Poland but across Europe, in countries such as Hungary and Turkey. In recent years, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has introduced policies to encourage Hungarian women to have children: those who have four or more children pay no income tax. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has urged women to have at least three children. In 2016 Erdogan said that a woman who does not have children is “deficient” and “incomplete”.

Within Poland, this policy is part of a conservative agenda promoted by PiS, which includes championing the so-called traditional family and targeting the country’s LGBT+ community. Kaczyński has denounced gay rights as a threat, warning of “an attack on the family and children”. 

Such rhetoric reduces women to baby-making machines, whose purpose is to counter demographic decline in their country, with little concern from the government for citizens' individual aspirations. In Poland and Hungary, the fertility rate is around the EU average of 1.5 births per woman, according to World Bank data. In Turkey, it is higher (just over 2 in 2018), but half what it was in 1980. In his state of the nation address in 2019, Orbán highlighted that “fewer and fewer children” are being born in Europe. “For the West, the answer is immigration. For every missing child there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine. But we do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children,” he said.

Poland’s new ruling would deprive women (and their partners) of the right to choose whether to carry a severely damaged foetus to term, with potentially far-reaching consequences for women and their families.

[See also: Why we should fear populists like Orban and Erdogan who want women to be baby machines]

A particular cause for concern among protesters is that the decision to further limit access to abortion was made not by parliament but by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which has been controlled by PiS appointees since the party came to power in 2015. The ruling was a response to a request made last year by a group of MPs, mostly from PiS, for the Tribunal to review whether the provisions allowing abortions in cases of foetal defects are compatible with Poland’s constitution.

In a statement criticising the ruling, Poland’s ombudsman Adam Bodnar recommended that Poland consider establishing a citizens' assembly, similar to the one held in Ireland before the 2018 referendum on abortion rights, to “weigh up all the scientific, legal and social reasons” relating to access to abortion.

Polls show that support for tighter restrictions on abortion is limited among the public. According to one poll, conducted shortly after the ruling, 59 per cent of Poles – and 40 per cent of PiS voters – are in favour of access to abortion in cases of severe foetal defects. Overall, most Poles favour the status quo, with only 22 per cent in favour of abortion on demand (up to the 12th week of pregnancy). In total, just 13 per cent of respondents supported the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling.

For now, the protests seem to have worked: the ruling still has not been published in the Journal of Laws, Poland’s most important publication of legal acts, and the deadline for doing so was 2 November. As such the rules on access to abortion remain, for the moment, unchanged.

PiS seems to have been taken aback by the scale of the women’s protests, as it was following a previous proposal to tighten the restrictions on abortion in 2016. The party leadership is already under pressure from its coalition partners over its handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and appears now to be biding its time.

But the situation remains unresolved and the protests continue, with demonstrations in Kraków, Gdańsk and other cities in Poland over the past weekend. At the very least, protesters want the ruling halted, rather than pushed through in the guise of a supposedly objective court decision.

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