Women in Poland may just have terminated the authoritarian rule of the nationalist party Law and Justice, which barely a few days ago seemed entrenched for decades to come. The revolt was ignited by a ruling of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal according to which abortion of a foetus with incurable or terminal defects is unconstitutional. The ruling satisfies the expectations of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which for decades has insistently sought a complete ban on abortions in Poland. Pressure to limit access to abortion was also exerted on the Polish authorities by international nongovernmental organisations, financed by dark money – their activities were recently reported on by openDemocracy.
Until 22 October 2020, i.e. the day the ruling was issued, Polish law permitted terminations of pregnancies in three situations: in cases of foetal abnormalities, in cases of a threat to the woman’s health, and in cases of incest or rape. The ruling made the first of the three above-listed situations unconstitutional. The ruling cannot be appealed against.
Even though free access to abortion has now become one of the main calls of the protesters, their revolt is about abortion only superficially. At its core is a desperate attempt to regain elementary human agency of which they have been blatantly and ruthlessly deprived.
As a man, I do not presume to give an answer to the question posed in the title of this essay. The last thing Polish women need is a man explaining the reasons for their fury. They themselves have made abundantly clear the causes of their revolt. The essence of their rebellion finds one of its best expressions in the juicy and powerful Polish expletive “Wypierdalać!” Used privately, it means, “Get the fuck out of here.” Yet in present circumstances, this most vulgar Polish swearword has assumed a novel, no less powerful, and dignified meaning: they want the whole entrenched Polish political class to get the fuck out of their private lives, and, while they are at it, from public life too.
The addressee of the expletive is precisely specified by means of another expletive: “Jebać PiS,” – literally, “Fuck Law and Justice.” The protesters sometimes replace it in writing with the symbol of eight stars (***** ***), which unmistakably communicates the same content without offending those juveniles who may be present.
Below I attempt to explain why women in Poland, young and old, believe that the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal is unacceptable. It needs to be stressed that the sentiment is widely shared not only by the masses of women in Poland but also by their male partners.
Due to serious irregularities in the way changes were made both in the legal status of the Constitutional Tribunal and its personal composition, the court has irrevocably lost its supreme status in its relation to the legislature. The legitimacy of the court, and thus the legality of its rulings, have been irreparably compromised. The Tribunal has effectively become a plaything in the hands of Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of the Law and Justice party and his acolytes. As a matter of fact, the ruling in question was made at the express wish of Kaczyński.
The content of the ruling is tantamount to condemning foetuses with irreversible terminal defects, as well as their parents, to avoidable and gratuitous physical and mental suffering. It thus violates the moral norm of avoiding unnecessary suffering, and the right to life without avoidable suffering.
The ruling imposes on parents a supererogative, i.e. the heroic obligations necessary in taking care of children who, due to incurable defects, are incapable of self-sufficient life, and it burdens the entire society with excessive costs of the care of such children.
The ruling was made in the circumstances of limitations of civil liberties imposed due to the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. In view of the demonstrations of women in October 2016, known as Black Monday, there are reasons to believe that the authorities did take into account the possibility that the ruling of the court may cause social displeasure, and hoped to inhibit potential public protests by means of the epidemic restrictions.
There is one more reason for rebelling against the extremely problematic ruling. It was issued in a way that violates not only the principles of law, human rights, and moral norms, not to mention the now-forgotten standards of rudimentary political decency. It is questionable not only because it violates the right to self-determination in the area of reproduction, as well as women’s civil rights. What is most outrageous about this ruling is that it diminishes the sense of fundamental existential human agency.
What is most outrageous about this ruling is that it diminishes the sense of fundamental existential human agency.
A sense of self-determination, a belief in an individual’s ability to determine one’s fate, is a basic precondition of the proper functioning of human individuals. This foundation has just been taken away from the people. Most distressingly, however, it affects in particular the women in Poland. The ruling violates Polish women, and the rape has several dimensions.
First, the ruling affects their agency in the most important and most intimate matters related to their reproductive rights.
Secondly, it deprives them of the right to autonomously decide whether to continue or terminate a pathological pregnancy.
Thirdly, the ruling reduces the scope of their civic, moral, and existential agency. But, at the same time, it imposes upon them a duty to mobilize their thus reduced agency to give birth to the incurably sick child, to face its possible death, and possibly to devote themselves to its care.
Fourth, by exerting far-reaching and comprehensive pressure on women, the authorities create a situation of fear of sexual activity, which is a precondition for a normal life. Among the aims of the present government has been to increase the fertility rate in Poland, one of the lowest in Europe. The ruling of the court, while invoking the sanctity of life, will have the opposite effect, for it will positively discourage people from taking a decision to become pregnant.
And, as if all the above were not enough, the entrapped women are additionally humiliated: in return for obedient acquiescence, the authorities offer them appallingly insufficient financial assistance.
Instead of recognizing women as moral subjects, the authorities treat them as moral patients, entrapping them in a situation of helplessness. Their rebellion is an act of self-defence against this helplessness.
In their protest, they have resorted to something that may be called the “Lysistrata option.” The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes was one of the first to publicly speculate about the political power of sex. In one of his comedies, Lysistrata, the Peloponnesian War was ended thanks to the heroine calling women from the warring cities out on a sex strike. What we see now in Poland is women who have rediscovered, on a practical level, the political power of gender. For a better part of the year 2020 the Polish government, instead of fighting the pandemic, joined forces with the Catholic Church to fight the “gender ideology.” They have overdone it.
All people are capable of heroism. An enforced act is not heroic. Heroism is an action against coercion. The authorities and the protesters speak different moral and political languages. The categories of their languages are incommensurable. The conflict was unavoidable, and is irresolvable. The radicalism of the authorities, who dictated the ruling to the Constitutional Tribunal, has generated a no less radical and unyielding attitude among the protesters. There is no sign that the authorities are willing to diffuse the stand-off. On the contrary, they intend to ruthlessly crack down on the spontaneous opposition.
These days of ongoing protest, which have now engulfed the whole of Poland, vividly demonstrate that the time given to each community is one of the most precious social goods. It is precious because of being non-renewable. The sight of hundreds of thousands of people protesting against authoritarian rule makes one realize that all of us, young and old, could have been spending this time studying, working, creating works of art, having fun, resting, exploring the world, enjoying a free, full, and rich life, and in this way contributing to the material and cultural wealth of our community.
Instead, we devote our energies to the fight against a political power, which is nothing but a systematic waste of our time. Come to think of it, for so many years we have let our precious time be wasted by people like Kaczyński and his acolytes. We have let them waste way too much of our time.
For so many years we have let our precious time be wasted by people like Kaczyński and his acolytes. We have let them waste way too much of our time.
Our homemade authoritarianism was based on the alleged charisma of Jarosław Kaczyński and was fuelled by his hatred of anything that stood in his way to absolute power. His leadership was propped up by the charisma of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, the charisma of both has just been done away with in one blow by the people who said: enough is enough. Without – even elementary – charisma, political rule is impossible to maintain. That’s why they have only one option left: “Wypierdalać!”
That is also why the leader of the protest, Marta Lempart, is right: the only thing to be negotiated with the present authorities now that their charisma is irretrievably lost, are the conditions of their resignation. Even if they manage to contain or suppress the protests, the rebellious spirit will not be extinguished, and it will flare up again.