Like the global outpouring of assistance following an earthquake or other natural disaster, women around the world have come together in response to a constitutional court ruling that has effectively banned abortion in Poland, which already had one of Europe’s harshest abortion laws.
Solidarity protests have been held outside Polish embassies and consulates across Europe – including in Berlin, Kiev, Lisbon, London, Luxembourg, Manchester, Oslo, Reykjavik, Rome, Stockholm and Tallinn.
There have also been demonstrations in Bali, Chicago, Dublin, Edinburgh, Edmonton (Canada), Geneva, Guadalajara and Tenerife. Some, including in Cambridge, UK, have been organised by Polish women living abroad.
Feminist activists, rights groups and ordinary women are showing their support for historic protests in Poland online, sharing pictures or art with hashtags including #PiekloKobiet (Women’s Hell), #ToJestWojna (This is War) and #AborcjaBezGranic (Abortion Without Borders).
The Polish constitutional court’s ruling on 22 October – which banned abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomalies – sparked demonstrations in more than 150 cities in the country. Last Friday, 100,000 people marched through Warsaw in the biggest protest in the country’s recent history.
In Argentina, the Campaign for Legal Abortion is among the reproductive rights groups following the marches in Poland and posting messages, videos and pictures online using the hashtag #solidaritywithpolishwomen.
The Irish Campaign for Legal Abortion has done this too – and it shared the telephone number of the Abortion Without Borders network. This initiative of six groups in four countries (Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK) was launched last year to help Polish women access safe abortions online or abroad.
During the recent protests, the network’s number was spray-painted on buildings, statues, signs and churches across Poland. Abortion Without Borders has subsequently reported a huge rise in the number of calls it receives (from 400 a month to almost 600 in the days after the first protests).
The network has reportedly raised around €250,000 since the protests started. Its Polish partner, the Abortion Dream Team, is collecting donations online, as is Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), the grassroots movement mainly coordinating the protests in Poland, and groups of paramedics providing first aid for protesters. The Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA), a Polish NGO for reproductive health and rights, is raising funds for Polish women as well, and says it will start a special fund for abortion migration.
Women on Web, a Canadian non-profit group providing help and information on safe abortion and contraception, is also collecting donations for its work. They answer questions online from pregnant people around the world, including in Poland, who are looking to access safe medical abortion services.
Petitions and open letters
Demonstrations have been held daily in Poland since the court ruling. The government has deployed riot police and military force to confront the protestors. The police have used pepper spray, tear gas and made arrests.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ultra-conservative and populist ruling party Law and Justice, accused protestors of “destroying Poland”, being “criminals” and “exposing a lot of people to death” due to COVID-19. On several occasions, ultranationalist and far-right groups have attacked protestors.
Globally, dozens of rights groups have signed a statement urging the Polish government to respect the right of freedom of assembly, and asking the EU and the international community to “act with urgency to prevent violence against peaceful protestors and attacks on women human rights defenders”.
Petitions backing Polish women’s rights have been launched by Amnesty International and on other platforms. The global group Center for Reproductive Rights issued a statement. In Italy, dozens of women’s and LGBTIQ rights groups, trade unions and other civil society organisations signed an open letter addressed to EU leaders and Italian ministers demanding that they support the Polish protests and publicly condemn the abortion ban.
In the UK, a petition is asking the government to urge its Polish counterpart to “reconsider its approach to abortion and ensure that women's rights are protected”.
Politicians from several countries are also raising their voices. The leaders of five political groups at the European Parliament (European People's Party, Socialists and Democrats, the Greens, Renew Europe and United European Left) wrote a letter to Poland’s prime minister protesting what they called an “unprecedented attack on the rights and freedoms of women”.
The letter expressed solidarity with “the thousands of Polish women and men who, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, took to the streets of cities and towns across Poland” in response to the constitutional court’s ruling.
In Germany, the Bundestag’s vice-president said it is time for the German government and the EU “to increase the political pressure on the Polish government to the maximum and demand European human rights standards”.
In Italy, some Democratic Party members asked the Minister of European Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to express “disapproval for the statements of the Polish Prime Minister” and to work at a European level to ensure full respect for EU fundamental rights.
In Spain, the left-wing Podemos party tweeted about the Polish demonstrations, sending “support to Polish women and men who rose up against the restriction of abortion rights. Women's rights are human rights, we can't allow them to be violated in any place.”
A near-total ban on abortion
The Polish court’s ruling on 22 October said that abortions in cases of foetal anomalies are against the Polish constitution, denying the protection of “human dignity”. The case was filed by 119 lawmakers, most of them from the Law and Justice party.
Poland already had the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe (apart from Malta). Pregnancy terminations were allowed for only three reasons: severe foetal defects; in cases of rape or incest; or if the mother’s life is in danger.
Since 97% of the 1,110 legal abortions in Poland last year were performed because of “severe and irreversible foetal defect or incurable illness”, in practice the court’s ruling is a near-total ban on abortion.