The meeting place for the 2020 International Womens’ Day march was the Palace of Culture (PKiN), in Warsaw. This is a 237m tall remnant of the communist era known locally as Stalin’s Penis. There could be found a gathering of men, women and children sporting rainbows and holding banners aloft. This would be their last protest to be declared safe and legal in the country. Among their slogans, in a variety of languages, it was hard to miss the mass of umbrellas. Around the world several symbols have become synonymous with pro-choice campaigns: the coat hanger is probably best known but since the Black Protests of 2016 the umbrella has become an icon in Poland.
In October of 2020, a Constitutional Tribunal which consisted predominantly of judges appointed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) determined that the abortion of malformed foetuses was unconstitutional. This would render 98% of abortions conducted by healthcare professionals illegal. At this time, abortion was permitted only either when the pregnancy was the result of an unlawful act, it posed a threat to the mother’s life, or the foetus was malformed and likely to be severely disabled. The Tribunal deemed the act of termination to be ableist. This was not the first time, however, that under the PiS government abortion rights were reconsidered. In 2016, the Stop Abortion Committee was set up and endorsed widely by government officials, the Catholic Church and even the then Prime Minister, Beata Szydło. Yet, this was met with widespread protests and consequently lost her much of her support.
What happened next was not surprising. Polish men, women and children took to the streets in their thousands to protest the decision and the political system which had brought them to this point. This was coordinated predominantly by an organisation founded in 2016, Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), and while it gained significant attention in Poland and around the world, this was not enough.
In a state such as Poland where nine out of ten people describe themselves as Catholic, the religious aspects of this debate will always be pertinent. It is also vital to account for the fact that this is not the only force at work here, with a long and painful history under communist rule the country is understandably sceptical of anything reminiscent of that era. One of these things being a more relaxed view of abortion. When the Strajk Kobiet movement began to broaden its horizons and call for the resignation of government officials it polarised many of its supporters and some commentators believe this is where they lost their momentum. The new restrictions came into force on January 27th of this year.
In hindsight, the choice of meeting place last year seems fitting. The large crowd dwarfed by a historical monument and symbol of oppression was clearly fighting a losing battle even then. The theme of International Womens’ Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge and I can’t help but feel this speaks directly to the issues we see in Poland. The question is not what are Poles supposed to challenge, but how are they to do so? Sure, they can choose to challenge their leaders, but the next election won’t be until 2023, so there is a limit to the effect this alone will have. They could challenge the status quo and change their prospects, as many already have, hence emigration rates of Polish young people are often described as an exodus. These things, however, would not only contribute to the ‘brain drain’ of the nation but would tire the activists we see at work there. And so, a balance must be found, between actions and words. To secure a better future for Polish women, what they must do is challenge the narrative and take back control of the conversation.
Late last year, Argentina, the home of Pope Francis, legalised abortion. This came about following five years of retaliation against femicide which incorporated the struggle for women’s healthcare. Back in 2018, another Catholic state, Ireland, by a historic referendum, repealed the Eighth Amendment, which had among other things established a 14-year jail term as punishment for those who attain abortions. If religion is not the defining feature of abortion legislation, then what does that leave us with? Abortion legislation is about safety, is it not the duty of the state to ensure that for its people? Are we not talking about femicide in the modern-day?
In Poland, the estimate of illegal abortions conducted annually ranges from 50,000 to 300,000. Abortion has been a tool for political point-scoring for too long – it is time to put safety, women’s safety, first.
Words by Catherine Woolley
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