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Protests in Poland: Women’s Rights are Wavering

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Martha Davies reports on the tightening of abortion laws in Poland, whilst women’s rights are becoming increasingly restricted.

Photo by Zuza Galczynska

Poland’s top court has recently ruled against the legality of abortions in the case of foetal defects. The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights has described this as a "sad day for women's rights". Since Poland’s abortion laws were already extremely strict, this ruling means abortion is now almost completely banned in the country.

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal has decided that pregnancies cannot be terminated when the foetus is severely or even fatally malformed. Abortions will now only be permitted in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. Such a ruling effectively bans abortion, as almost all legal abortions in Poland were previously carried out on the grounds of foetal defects.

Though Poland is one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, polls suggested that the public did not strongly oppose previous abortion laws; instead, it was Bishops and lay Catholic groups putting constant pressure on the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) to make the laws even stricter. This was also met with contention, as around 100,000 people took to the streets in 2016 to protest against tighter abortion legislation. Yet, last year, the governing party and far-right MPs requested that the court come to a decision, leading to the devastating change announced at the end of October.

Activists and human rights groups alike expressed deep concern over the new legislation, with Amnesty International issuing a joint statement with The Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights declaring that independent monitors would be sent to Poland by both organisations to observe court proceedings. The statement emphasises that the tribunal took place “in the context of repeated government attacks on women’s rights and efforts to roll back reproductive rights”. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 Polish women seek abortions abroad every year; with laws on pregnancy termination now terrifyingly strict, this number is likely to increase, on top of the threat of dangerous illegal abortions.

Resistance Rises

Protests were staged early this year against the draft legislation, and in the wake of the final ruling, which the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has stated cannot be reversed, fresh resistance has swelled. In Warsaw, thousands of people marched from the court to Kaczynski’s home to express their anger, resulting in riot police using pepper spray to break up the demonstrations. In several other cities, protestors have staged a ‘women’s strike’, gathering on the streets to challenge the government’s decision. Kaczynski has described the protests as an attempt to "destroy" Poland.

Turbulence has been brewing in Poland for some time over the country’s attempts to heavily restrict both women’s rights and human rights in general: in July, politicians began attempts to leave the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Known as the Istanbul Convention, the Convention involves protecting women and girls from abuse and aiding them in seeking justice, while also promoting education surrounding equality and conflict resolution.

Explaining the government’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro stated that it “contains elements of an ideological nature, which we consider harmful.” The country’s ruling party has continually promoted the idea of ‘traditional’ values in an attempt to delegitimise the rights of women, young people, and members of the LGBT+ community in Poland. The new abortion legislation is clearly yet another attempt to diminish the agency of women.

A Question of Human Rights

Though this recent ruling is a tragic blow, the safety of women and LGBT+ people in Poland has long since been fragile. Polish activist and European Parliament politician Sylwia Spurek has stated in an interview with The Parliament Magazine that, “the fundamental human rights of women and LGBT+ people in Poland have never been fully guaranteed, legally and in practice.”

Recent media attention may lead us to believe that far-right politics in the country is a sudden and overwhelming threat, but this has been a reality for far longer. “The lack of access to legal abortion, the lack of protection for women against domestic violence, hatred against LGBT+ people, the lack of equality in marriage, and the inability for same-sex couples to enter a registered partnership are not just problems from the last five years,” Spurek emphasises.

With this almost total ban on abortion, the future of women’s rights is made even bleaker. The ruling is a grave but unfortunately unsurprising move on the part of the Polish government, representing a regression within modern politics, and a step forward for the country’s alarming far-right agenda. We must put our faith in the power of human rights groups, activists, and our own voices to challenge such a detrimental decision.

Similar: Belarus: The End to ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship?

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