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Polish women on the ‘Black Monday’ abortion ban protest

Over 100,000 donned black to march through the streets of Warsaw and neighbouring Polish towns: they tell the story of their fight here

Thousands of women marched through the streets of Poland yesterday, organising a mass strike to protest the plans for a total ban on abortion.

Abortion is already restricted in Poland from a law created in 1993, with some of the most imposing laws around reproductive rights, but a new policy change would ban it altogether – affecting rape survivors, young children and adolescents and those with cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, who would be forced to carry a pregnancy full term. Miscarriages would have to be investigated, with any found to be ‘criminal’ carrying prison time. Only if a woman was in ‘imminent’ danger of death, would doctors perform an abortion.

A recent Ipsos opinion poll showed that only 11 per cent of the population were in favour of the upcoming proposal. Almost half said the existing legislation should remain unchanged, with more than a third stating that abortion should be more widely available.

The incoming bill affecting abortion went through a parliamentary vote in September, and has now went onto the stage where it’s discussed by a committee. To combat this, more than 100,000 women pledged to strike from work in Warsaw and elsewhere across Poland for the Czarny – meaning ‘black’ in Polish – protest, donned in black.

“Despite so many people wearing jet black clothing, it was actually a happy day for me,” Ania Szudek, a protestor and activist, told Dazed. “It was a day on which Polish women really got together and finally showed the government what a force they are. I haven’t seen us stand up for ourselves so unanimously in a long time. I actually got to talk to a group of middle-aged women as well as to a couple of junior high school girls. It was simply heart-warming for me to see us be so opinionated and outspoken.

“I really hope that we can keep this up for months and years to come. And I was delighted to see so many men back us up, with some of them taking a day off to make sandwiches and cook soup for us.”

Szudek described the environment within which such encroaching laws on reproductive rights have come about. She said: “Women in Poland are constantly subjected to scrutiny. From the earliest days of our lives we are told not to make a fuss, but to be quiet and humble instead. This anachronism is reflected in the existing abortion law to which we consented, because we’ve been told for so many years that we are the ones who should be cautious and responsible and just not get pregnant. This has given rise to the recent protests, as well as to the sorry comments of those in power, both in the church and in the government, who apparently just cannot cope with us finally becoming self-confident at large.”

“As a woman, I demand rights equal to those of men. I demand the opportunity to really meet my potential as a person – that’s what gender equality means to me. But we won’t arrive at this until women’s reproductive rights are finally recognised and respected.”

She voiced what's the hope of the thousands dressed in black on Monday: that their now global platform will pressure the government to liberalise laws, healthcare and sexual education, with the possibility of the European Union taking a stand to introduce these fundamental rights on an international level. “One thing I’m sure of is that this movement cannot and won’t be stopped,” Szudek asserted.

The strike comes at a time when abortion is just as much a devisive issue elsewhere in the world. Recently, Ireland came together to fight against its religiously-motivated abortion laws, asking the government to repeal the 8th amendment. Pro-choice protests in London, Berlin, Dublin, Belfast and elsewhere saw people stand in solidarity with Polish women. London’s protest in Parliament Square saw upwards of 500 people, with more joining to demonstrate outside of the Polish Embassy. A spokesperson for London-based Polish Feminists told Dazed:

“There were hundreds of thousands of Polish women who marched across the world this Monday. And all of this because the Catholic Church is still allowed in our political system in Poland! Trying to rule not just in the Church, but also in Polish politics, and in women's bodies. As if the situation wasn't bad enough before, with some doctors signing a 'clause of conscience' to say they won't perform any abortions because they were Catholic. Now, they're trying to write that rule into our law.”

She added: “Alongside that, they are trying to push out sex education, emergency contraception, prenatal care, and investigate women who have had miscarriages. It is a war on women, and we are fighting back!” 

“The outcome of all the demonstrations so far is that we already see some response from the politicians in our country,” she explained. As Polish Feminists have pointed out, Poland’s ruling party has distanced themselves from the “Stop Aborcji bill”

“I want to say it very loudly and clearly: the government of Law and Justice was not working and is not working on any law that would change the currently binding regulations,” Beata Szydlo, Poland’s prime minister, said at a press conference today in response to the protests.

The prime minister has additionally said that she wants to see “calmer emotions” surrounding the proposed law change right now.

“We will also be watching closely the debate in the EU Parliament tomorrow, with the hope that the EU will be able and willing to put more pressure on the government to strap this bill,” Polish Feminists’ spokesperson continued. “And in fact, to introduce a law on abortion, sex education and contraception that is in line with international human rights conventions.”

Rebellion spread throughout the country. Julia Kwiatkowska, an activist who organised a similar protest in central-north Polish town Grudziądz, told Dazed through the #CzarnyPoniedziałek group: “I asked on local Facebook group if there are plans to organize local edition of #BlackMonday in our community and it turned out that it’s not gonna happen. I decided to organise the protest for women in my city to protest against the proposed abortion bill. I personally contacted local authorities, prepared all paper work and made everything work out.”

“I promoted the event online and directly by flyers, and then local media joined in – papers, radio, TV. We met on the main city square sharply at noon. 500 people showed up, which is amazing, given my lack of experience. It feels amazing to make such an impact. We all shouted, talked to each other and many women joined in and delivered touching speeches.”

She added: “We also decided to prepare a petition for local MP who voted for the new law, more than 500 people signed and we passed them to her office.”

The European Parliament plans to hold a debate on women’s rights in Poland this week.

Estimates from Polish officials state that there are more illegal abortions than legal ones in Poland – between 10,000 and 150,000, compared to about 1,000 or 2,000 legal terminations, according to BBC News. And abortion has, across the world, actually decreased. Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute have shown that in Europe, the rate went down from 52 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 annually in 1990-1994 to 30, two decades later.

“Abortions are still happening, but many of them are unsafe because they have to be clandestine,” Suzanne Petroni, senior director of global health, youth and development at the International Centre for Research on Women, told Bloomberg. “What Poland is trying to do with this new law goes against the global trend toward legalisation and liberalisation of access to abortion.”

Natalia Pancewicz, a member of the Nationwide Womens’ Strike Initiative, also told Dazed: “We never expected such reaction for Marta Lempart’s words calling for a strike, but deep down we felt that an amazing thing can happen. Women from 103 cities and towns in Poland and several dozens of international locations joined in. We still have not managed to count all of the participants – at the moment we know about 150,000 protesters.” 

“We consider the strike a huge success, because we managed to show that our voices matter. During the protest there were no divisions – both women who are supporting full liberalisation of the bill and women who just are afraid for their health.” 

She added: “What next? Most of all we will keep on protesting against the proposed law. If the parliament will not cease we will hit the streets again.”