Poland: a total ban on abortion?

With unprecedented political momentum for a total ban on abortion in Poland, thousands are marching in protest and the Prime Minister is receiving coat hangers in the post.


Magdalena Pochec
16 May 2016
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Thousands march in anger at the government bowing to church pressure to ban abortion. Photo: Piotr Stasiak/PK8M

Poland introduced a restrictive anti-abortion law in 1993 after the collapse of communism, instructed by the principles and influence of the Catholic Church. Aleksandra Solik recalls that “right after the first partly democratic elections in Poland, the Church started its offensive. Most of the society was against the proposed restrictions but the civil society remained undeveloped so people felt isolated and the new legislation came as a shock for all of us”. Solik was involved in the 1990s resistance movement that fought to prevent the introduction of restrictions on abortion. Eventually the law that was adopted was presented by politicians as a compromise with the Church. It limits access to abortion only to cases when the foetus is severely damaged, when the pregnancy poses a threat to woman's health, or when the pregnancy is a result of a rape.

Although the Polish State claims to be secular, for the last twenty years, no ruling party (be it left-wing or right-wing) has untangled the women's right to choose with religious restrictions. Feminist activists, backed by the international community have employed various strategies to push back against the restrictive legislation, but their success has been limited. Fortunately, anti-choice groups have not succeeded in introducing a total ban on abortion despite numerous attempts in the Parliament - so far.

And now for something completely different

The political landscape has shifted dramatically since the Poland’s elections in October 2015. Not only has the ultra-conservative party Law and Justice come to power, but for the first time in the history, no left-wing party has won seats. Left-wing votes were divided between the United Left (which has been progressively losing support) and a new comer to a political scene, the Together Party. This has left a sizeable proportion of society with no political representation, and forced left-wing parties to seek visibility outside of Parliament. Law and Justice is now in a position to rule without forming a coalition, and won presidential elections in 2015, giving them a powerful position. This translates to a serious human rights crisis for women, LGBTQI people, refugees and other marginalized groups.      

Law and Justice voted in favour of a total ban on abortion while holding the opposition position in Parliament, so there is now an unprecedented political momentum to bring about this ban. Proposing a civic legislative initiative is relatively easy for anti-choice groups; it requires one hundred thousand signatures to be collected within three months. With the support of the Catholic Church, there is no question they will succeed. This means that for the first time in the history of the Polish democracy, the country is on the brink of introducing a total ban on abortion, where abortion isn’t permitted even in the most extreme circumstances. 

It cuts both ways

The response of the civil society has also been unprecedented. For the past twenty years, Poland has not observed such an enormous and spontaneous mobilization around the issue of reproductive rights.  Solik says, “I have a feeling that young women in Poland are generally very frustrated because of persisting discrimination and the presence of anti-women's rights discourse in the public debate. This outrageous proposal only added insult to injury and sparked a massive response off”.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets with coat hangers and many are organizing online in protest of the proposed ban. Women bombarded the facebook profile of the prime minister, sharing details of their menstruation as a form of protest against politics that interfere with women's right to control her own body. The prime minister also received coat hangers by post. Some women walked out of church during Sunday mass when priests delivered a speech supporting the total abortion ban initiative. The protesters include both men and young women. “I am here to express my anger at the Government which bows to Church pressure. This is unacceptable,” said one of the men participating in the demonstration. Additional support has come from international community including celebrities like Juliette Binoche and Polish top model Anja Rubik who have expressed solidarity with the women of Poland.

While in Parliament, the left-wing parties did not engage in a debate around the restrictive anti-abortion law. Now they seek to be a part of the movement, by collecting signatures to create a more liberal version of the legislation, and to organize a referendum on the issue. 


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The group Radical Cheerleaders galvanising protesters. Photo: Piotr Stasiak/PK8MUnited in struggle? 

The frontline of the abortion battle in Poland isn't clearly demarcated. Reclaiming Choice Coalition is an alliance of pro-choice groups and organizations and has organized one of the demonstrations. “We are no longer afraid of being labelled radical. Quite the contrary, we are actually searching for revolutionary and subversive forms of activism. Our goal is to ridicule and compromise the Church. We demand our rights but we also want to have fun doing that! That’s why our demonstrations are not only limited to speeches but they are a kind of happening” – explains Natalia Broniarczyk, one of the initiators of the Reclaiming Choice Coalition. “We aim to be very inclusive of diverse groups of women and trans persons but we are not here to conform to norms and please everyone. We are no longer going to compromise our values!”. Their pro-choice protest was attended by thousands of people, many of whom came to defend the existing legislation.

GalsForGals (DziewuchyDziewuchom) is a grassroots initiative that has been hugely popular. Online, their community has already over one hundred thousand members, with diverse political opinions. Solik says, “it is extremely important that so many people who weren't interested in the issue for years finally got angry and are now involved. There is a huge potential in this collective and we need to exploit it. In the 90s feminist awareness was extremely low, but now it has changed, partly because of the accessibility of gender studies”.  

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Pro-choice anarchist feminists disguised as anti-choice demonstrators. Photo: Awa Bajer/PK8MA

But the diversity within the movement has also caused tensions. Many feminists believe that pro-choice activists lost the battle over language in the past. Today’s feminists now push for strong words like “Abortion is pro-life” or “Abortion is a positive good” which some of the protest participants find too radical and counter-effective. Solik says, “I agree that such wordings are strong in the Polish context but I also believe that such strategy makes sense. For years many pro-choice activists tempered their language and claimed that abortion was a necessary evil. This led us nowhere. I am actually glad to see that new generation of activists is uncompromising”. Broniarczyk says “we need to take control over the language and start to speak about abortion as a fact of life”. There have been other internal clashes. Reclaiming Choice Coalition was criticized by some activists for being inclusive of LGBTQI people who claimed that it “does not serve the cause”. “We were quite saddened by this transphobic and homophobic reactions. Abortion means freedom and freedom can’t be limited to some groups of people”, says Broniarczyk.

Possible scenarios

The government faces a difficult challenge in that they owe their election to anti-choice groups and the Church, but civil society is putting massive pressure on them to abandon their anti-choice policies. The Law and Justice party may therefore need to seek an alternative course of action. It is quite possible they won't introduce a total ban on abortion, but will further restrict the existing legislation by prohibiting abortion when a foetus is severely damaged. Are Polish authorities going to shift the “compromise” further?

It is hard to predict how social attitudes towards the right to choose will evolve, or how the communities that have organized will move forward. Will this anti-choice swing trigger a pendulum effect?  Broniarczyk is sure of progress, “I am totally hopeful. It is quite possible that I won’t be able to benefit from our victory, I might already be too old for that, but we will win!”  

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