Zofia is feeling anxious. The 30-year-old art curator and activist from Poznań, Poland, has been an avid proponent of the pro-choice protests in the country and, on 4 November, two police officers were waiting for her when she returned home from walking her dog. They demanded to see her ID, threatened her and held open the door to her flat for half an hour. “I didn’t know who they were, so I asked to speak to my lawyer,” she says. “They told me that if I give them false information, me and ‘the likes of me’ would be forced to face the consequences. They were incredibly aggressive.”
She is almost certain she will face a trial. Last week, Zofia threw eggs against a church wall in protest at the Catholic Church’s tightening grip on Polish politics and abortion laws. Since then, Zofia and a group of friends demonstrated inside Poznań’s churches during a mass — raising banners emblazoned with the statements ‘Shame’, ‘For them, we will always be unlawful’ and ‘Abortion is not a sin’. They were kettled by a disproportionate number of riot police, who threatened them with arrest and barred them from leaving the church until they had taken down their IDs.
The root of the unrest
It’s a fortnight since Law and Justice (PiS) — Poland’s conservative party that came to power in 2015 — pushed through a draconian anti-abortion law that made terminations only permissible in cases of rape, incest, or where there’s a threat to the mother’s life. Cases such as this account for just two percent of legal abortions. Even if a fetus shows signs of severe illness that would result in death soon after birth, abortion would be illegal. The pro-choice protests that ensued after the law change on 22 October surprised everyone, including the protesters. The demonstrations started in Warsaw, near the PiS leader’s home, before spreading across the city. Within two days, they were nationwide.
The change in the law was the last straw, and although the pro-choice movement’s response may seem sudden to international observers, it had been brewing for some time. On 3 October 2016, women took to the streets when the first draft of the plan was published, or rather threatened, leading to the Czarny Protest, or Black Protest, as women in their millions took to the streets across the country in funeral attire.
So, what’s changed since then? “More people see themselves as being potentially affected, in [that they might] need a termination,” says Natalia Broniarczyk of the support group Aborcyjny Dream Team. “Speaking through one’s own experience brings people together. It’s a great change of language. Protesters spray our telephone number on the walls. We helped 33 women within the first 10 days of the current protests who, thanks to fundraising, could go to Germany, UK, or the Netherlands. In that same period, 1,000 women got medical abortions. That’s three times more than before the current protests.”
The making of a movement
The anger hasn’t burnt out in the four years since but grown. As has the activity of the All-Poland Women Strike, which has consistently organized demonstrations. More to the point, it has inspired a new generation of young, defiant women, for whom social media is a natural habitat and many of whom do not hold the same reverence for the Catholic Church.
If Poland’s projected political path when it comes to abortion rights were to be compared to another country it’s perhaps Ireland, where the church’s influence on the law was equally strong until widespread cases of child abuse at senior levels of the church were revealed. Not dissimilar cases are coming to the fore in Poland, which is sowing more distrust and anger. Sensing the loss of its authority, many believe the church is teaming up with an equally conservative ruling party to strengthen their control of women’s reproductive rights.
The government’s decision to tighten the law in the middle of the second wave of Covid-19 is viewed as an attempt to stifle opposition. But as we can see, it’s had the opposite effect, as Weronika Grzebalska, an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, explains: “With these protests, the right’s monopoly on populism in Poland is broken. For many years, the nationalist right mobilized voters by presenting them as the ‘good people’ wronged by treacherous and detached ‘elites’. With the government pushing for further restrictions on abortion against the will of the majority, a new ‘common [cause]’ has been created.”
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
The issue of abortion has accentuated the government’s perceived violations and failures. The state-spread anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric has seen the steady rollback of gay rights leading nearly a third of the country to pass resolutions declaring themselves ‘free of LGBTQIA+ ideology’. Trucks with banners equating homosexuality to pedophilia roam the streets. And in August 2020, riots broke out after a prominent LGBTQIA+ activist was arrested.
The state-controlled media, meanwhile, has been spreading harmful language against minorities and migrants and scapegoating them in election campaigns and whenever they’re under attack. Furthermore, the government’s handling of the pandemic has led to condemnation, as small businesses feel as though they’ve been hung out to dry, teachers and students continue to e-learn, and the country’s Covid-19 death toll sits at 7,287.
The pro-choice protesters have fought back with typically forthright language, the main chant being, ‘Wypierdalać’ (‘Get the f*** out/f*** off’). In light of the pandemic, the people I have seen at the demonstrations have behaved responsibly — wearing masks and looking out for one another. Ordinary people, including families with children, are finding the courage to stop cars on busy streets and create blockades. Their efforts are working: 30 October saw the biggest street protest in Polish history, with an estimated 100,000 people on the streets for more than six hours. The government’s only weapon now is to shut down abortion clinics altogether. More shockingly, in a televised speech, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński appealed to nationalist groups to “defend” churches against women.
The past few days have been largely calm, and there are concerns over whether the protests can keep going. Criticism from within the movement is growing, after the All-Poland Women’s Strike collective put together a committee that didn’t mirror the protest demographics — young members, individuals left of the center, and those not from Warsaw were left out, leading to accusations of the group hijacking the protests.
Then there are people like Zofia, whose voices are at risk of being repressed. “My major concern is that this movement will not use the protests as a catalyst for a new progressive populism for the 99 percent,” warns Grzebalska. “That they instead revert back to the worn-out and disenchanting methods and language used by the boomer generation.”
With that in mind, it is important to remember that we, the people, not the politicians, hold the power and we can make a longstanding change when it comes to abortion rights. As Broniarczyk concludes: “[While] the lockdown will inevitably stifle the protests, the value of our fight [for society] to accept abortion is so important it cannot be overestimated.”
What you can do to support the pro-choice movement in Poland
Donate to organizations such as Aborcyjnydreamteam.pl at or visit the umbrella page Abortion Without Borders, which has details of several initiatives. Other notable resources include the Abortion Support Network, the Berlin-based Polish Ciocia Basia (Aunt Barbara) or the national support line for Polish women: +48 22 292 25 97 / +48 22 30 70 791. There are also sister protests taking place around the world organized by Dziewuchy-Dziewuchom (Girls to Girls).