Pin It
Poland abortion protest
photographer Katy Fallon

Polish women look to the power of protest in the abortion debate

Thousands marched through Warsaw as reproductive rights continue to be eroded by some of the strictest abortion laws in the world

On Sunday around 2,000 people marched through central Warsaw, protesting what many see as a backward roll for women’s rights in Poland. Music blasted from speakers and a varied demographic of young, old, babies and dogs marched through the capital. The atmosphere was generally cheery, although temperatures hovered around freezing.

The demonstrations had a special significance for Polish women, as this year marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of highly restrictive abortion legislation. Abortion is currently illegal in Poland except in the case of rape, risk to the mother’s life, or if the foetus is sick or irreparably damaged. In January, the parliament proposed to ban it in the last instance.

Abortion is just one of the reproductive rights which have been targeted under the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party: last year the morning-after pill was made available by prescription only.

“Things get worse and worse year by year for women’s rights in Poland,” says one of the young women at the march holding a placard which said I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit. “The reason I’m here is more symbolic, I don’t think the politicians will do anything,” she adds. Another women who wished to remain anonymous agreed, “I come every year to this demonstration,” she tells Dazed. “I think it’s got worse, many women want abortion to be legal but the government doesn’t want that.”

The desire to remain nameless may have had something to do with the police who, while maintaining a passive presence, filmed organisers on handheld cameras at the beginning of the march and as the walk continued. Women’s rights groups in Poland have reason to be cautious too. In November 2017, the Women’s Rights Centre and Baba, an advocacy group for victims of domestic violence, had their offices raided and documents and computers seized by police.

Liliana Religa from Polish NGO the Federation for Women and Family Planning says that they face continuous scrutiny from more conservative factions in the country, particularly the anti-abortion lobby. “They are very keen on discrediting feminists and even after the Black Protests (national protests in 2016 after a draft law proposed a total ban on abortion) they tried to prove that these mass demonstrations were organised from abroad.” Liliana explains that they have to be careful, as they have anti-abortion activists calling them up, pretending to be women in need to ensure that they aren’t giving advice on how to obtain abortions.

According to research carried out in 2016 by Polish research group the Centre for Public Opinion Research, over half the population was still in favour of legislation remaining the same. Liliana remarks upon the difference between political rhetoric and public sentiment. “The anti-choice groups are very loud and visible and they have enormous support from the church and the conservative politicians… but there are discrepancies between public life and what people are for.”

Kate from Dziewuchy Dziewhuchom, an online advocacy group, which roughly translates as ‘Girls for Girls’ notes the appetite for change. They were overwhelmed when the Facebook group, started in 2016 in response to the proposed abortion ban, grew to 100,000 members in five days. “There were like 300 posts in the group on the first day we set it up,” Kate says, “and then we realised, it’s not only a group, it’s kind of a duty and we need to do something with this power.” The message spread worldwide and they found supporters in women such as actor Juliette Binoche and Polish model Anja Rubik.

“Things get worse and worse year by year for women’s rights in Poland”

“I like to stay positive,” Kate asserts about the current climate around abortion. “Even if I see a lot of shit in the media”. Sunday’s march brought out many women of the older generation and Kate noted that a lot of older women are in favour of a more liberal law, “a majority of those women remember the time when abortion was legal”.

Deficiencies in sex education are, she suggests, why a surprisingly large number of young men are opposed to abortion. “They are completely anti-choice – that is very interesting because, it’s my opinion, (that) those young men are afraid of feminine domination.” Dziewuchy Dziewhuchom started a hashtag last October #sexedpl to raise awareness of the problems created by poor sex education in schools.

Protest has proved to be Polish women’s greatest asset in the past couple of years. After the Black Protests in 2016, the total ban on abortion was dropped. There was an air of defiance and positivity amongst the marchers on Sunday, as there had been then. Not even the presence of a minority of anti-abortion activists holding up placards with graphic images seemed to dampen the mood.

If Ireland repeals its abortion legislation this year it will leave Poland on a dwindling list of EU countries which prohibit abortion: Malta, the Vatican and Lichtenstein amongst them. “We don’t lose our faith,” Liliana from the Federation for Women and Family Planning tells Dazed, “we think if women strike and go to the streets, we can maybe change their minds.”