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Poland abortion law protests 16
Photography Wiktor Malinowski

Speaking to protesters fighting back against Poland’s abortion ruling

Pro-choice activists across Poland have blockaded streets, disrupted churches and government meetings, and painted the city red following the near total ban on abortion

On October 22, the Constitutional Tribunal (Poland’s highest constitutional court) made a near-total ban of abortion in Poland a reality. Its decision to ban terminations in the cases of foetal defection was yet another attack on Polish women carried out by the right-wing government during its rule. Now, it means abortion is only accepted in cases of rape or incest, or to protect a pregnant person’s life – these cases make up just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions that took place in Polish hospitals last year. Polish women’s groups say the number of abortions carried out illegally or abroad could be somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000.

In the last five years, the Catholic fundamentalist ruling party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – The Law and Justice party) has been pushing an ultra-conservative and unconstitutional agenda. Such efforts have been widely supported by the powerful, Polish Catholic clergy, and anti-choice activists such as Kaja Godek from the ‘Stop Abortion’ group – who stand behind the abortion-restricting bill.

The tribunal’s ruling has triggered mass protests across Poland, led by feminist social movement OSK (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet – Polish Women’s Strike). The group has been protesting again this government’s anti-choice agenda since 2016, when a similarly controversial and dangerous bill on abortion came into play. The activists not only oppose the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, but state that no legitimate ruling has occurred, due to the far-right and anti-choice politicisation of the tribunal.

The demonstrations have continued into their sixth day, and plans are to keep going. Last Friday (October 23), 100,000 people were led through the streets of Warsaw. Yesterday, around 50 cities had streets blockaded, while government meetings and churches were disrupted. Small towns and villages across Poland have also seen activists take to the streets, while demos also took place outside the Polish embassies in London and Kyiv. A Twitter storm of hashtags – #PiekloKobiet (‘Hell of women’), #AborcjaBezGranic (‘Abortion without borders’), and #WyrokNaKobiety (‘Sentence on women’) – have garnered support from people across the world.

What started as an outcry against PiS’s draconian approach to women’s reproduction rights has now evolved into a more general anti-government protest that made people from all over the country to chant #wypierdalać (‘get the fuck out‘, or, simply, ‘fuck off’).

Below, we speak to the Polish activists about their involvement in the historic protests.

KLEMENTYNA SUCHANOW, WRITER AND ACTIVIST

Why have you decided to protest?

Klementyna Suchanow: I’m a part of OSK since its creation in 2016, when the Polish parliament was considering a bill that was to criminalise all terminations completely, even in the case of miscarriages. Protesting is nothing new to me.

Back then, my daughter was 13 – I’ve realised that her youth is going to be much different than the one I got to experience in the early 90s – it wasn’t a fairy-tale, but it was definitely more sensible when it comes to women’s rights. This frightened me. We’re in the 21st Century, why is my child supposed to have it worse than I did? The line has been crossed, we had to take it to the streets. 

What do the protests of the recent days look like? 

Klementyna Suchanow: We’ve tested alternative ways of protesting back during complete lockdown, when the government was already discussing the restriction of abortion laws. We as OSK did not pressure the public to take it to the streets. People are overcoming their authentic fear about their health and life, because the matter of their private, intimate freedom is critical. 

Do you think that activism can make a real change in Poland?

Klementyna Suchanow: Activism and civic initiatives can change anything! Our supposedly democratic system is corrupted – the recent elections were not entirely legal and institutions such as the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Tribunal are of questionable legality. Poland is currently in a state of an anarchy. It’s not a normal country based on the rule of law, so in order to protect our rights, we have to focus on the bottom-up mobilisation. Movements like this have deposed regimes and dictatorships before. The government has moved too far in their pursuit to interfere with human bodies.

How do you feel?

Klementyna Suchanow: We’ve experienced it all already. I had spine surgery due to the police intervention. There have been many injuries, thousands of lawsuits, and witch-hunts organised by the government-led public television – we’ve been through it all.

MARTA PLEWICKA, CATERER

Why have you decided to protest?

Marta Plewicka: PiS has been consistently ruining our country, antagonising people against each other, and politicising all institutions that should protect the rule of law. I started protesting only a couple of days ago, during my visit to Warsaw. I wish I would have done it sooner, but better late than never. The day before the ruling, I protested in front of the Constitutional Tribunal.

I had an illegal abortion. It was a fully conscious decision, but fear accompanied me through the entire process. What if something goes wrong? If I call an ambulance, will the police arrive as well? Abortion in a bathroom at home, a couple of hours of agony, howling, and in the end, an absolute physical exhaustion. I want to live in a country where abortion will not be a political topic, it will not be something up for a discussion at all, but my private matter. But I’m not moving out. The government can get the fuck out, I’m staying and fighting for my sisters‘ rights. 

What has protesting been like for you?

Marta Plewicka: The Friday’s march in Warsaw was raw rage. There was music, dance, remarkable energy. When we were passing by the pseudo-parliament, elderly people on a nearby balcony held a poster: “PENSIONERS SUPPORT YOU.“

Do you think that activism can make a real change in Poland?

Marta Plewicka: There is a brilliant slogan that we chanted on the march: ‘YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE PISSED US OFF!’. If I get pepper spray in my eyes – fine. If someone beats me up – fine. I know that I am fighting for matters so important that my private life has to be put aside.

PATRYCJA SZTYBER, SOCIAL CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST

Why have you decided to protest?

Patrycja Sztyber: My activism actually started late – just two years ago. I have always been sensitive, but I did not feel the need, nor did I have the energy for protests. I lived in a bubble – a privileged, well-earning person in Warsaw. Three years ago, I went through a real breakthrough. I turned 40, my father died, my relationship was falling apart, depression was progressing. With the last ounce of strength, I quit my job in a corporation, left my egoistic partner and after the mourning phase, I suddenly started to have time and strength to at least look around… and the reality hit me. 

I can see how naive I was, and how naive and short-sighted the Polish middle class is – they don’t see that poverty prevails and what social moods are beginning to dominate people. I myself did not notice the language of contempt used by liberals towards ‘uneducated parasites’. The bloody capitalistic egoism.

Self-shame was perhaps the strongest incentive to get into activism. Having many years of experience in strategic planning of advertising campaigns, I redirected my capitalist skills to social activities.

What is your perspective on the protests?

Patrycja Sztyber: This is not a one-off revolt. The rulers have crossed this magical line by degrading and disrespecting social groups one by one –  medics, nurses, teachers, university professors, people with disabilities, and most of all women. Living in a patriarchal country, we’ve always had a thick skin, and we have been underestimated by self-centred misogynists. Misogynists for whom the biggest problem is women using bad words during the protests! And guess what – they can get the fuck out! #wypierdalać.

KAROLINA MICUŁA, ARTIST AND PERFORMER 

Why have you decided to protest?

Karolina Micuła: I've been with OSK since October 2016. I’ve always been quite vocal on social matters, but that’s when I got really fucking pissed off, because the government had started to invade something that’s mine, my body, nothing abstract – my most intimate territory. 

Black Monday, Black Friday, International Women’s Strike, then lockdown protests in Spring – we had to act. I’m managing OSK’s Instagram and it’s currently blocked, because there is so much traffic on our page, people are sending us footage from literally everywhere.

How are you resisting?

Karolina Micuła: We tried ‘new’, ‘creative’ ways to protest in the times of coronavirus, but now we are putting it straight – FUCK OFF.

I’m constantly getting reports on what’s happening in Polish cities, villages, and small towns. I got photos from this small town, Białobrzegi, where no one ever has protested before. This person said that they are too afraid to march through the streets and didn’t have a printer, so they made posters to hang on every monument in town. 

What pisses me off is that people are trying to debate the methods that we’re using during this strike. We’ve been polite before. We were pissed the fuck off four years ago, but I think now is the moment that the rest of the Polish society is getting used to the idea that this is time for revolution. People are spraying public property, protesting in churches, blocking streets of entire cities, holding a general strike on Wednesday, and on Friday we’re protesting in Warsaw –  don’t anyone dare to tell us not to use vulgar words or to behave, okay? You can hear it on the videos from all over Poland, we are all chanting ‘FUCK OFF’ and ‘FUCK PiS’.

You can help Polish feminist activists by donating to Polish Women’s Strike (OSK) or the Abortion Dream Team