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Poland abortion ban
Via Twitter @strajkkobiet

Activists on the horror of Poland’s near-total abortion ban

Despite mass protests, global criticism, and already strict abortion laws, the country’s government has rolled back women’s rights even further

Women in Poland right now face the most significant rollbacks on fundamental rights in recent history. Last week (January 27), the country’s right wing government moved to implement a near-total ban on abortion, despite the ruling sparking mass protests and global criticism when it was first declared three months ago.

Pro-choice activists immediately took to the streets and social media, leading the biggest protests in the country’s recent history. In November, after almost two weeks of demonstrations, the government announced that it was delaying the abortion ban. Now, however, it’s been enforced with immediate effect.

Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, and will now only permit terminations in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. In October, the country ruled that abortion due to foetal defects is unconstitutional, even though 98 per cent of abortions in Poland are conducted for this reason.

“My first thought (after the announcement) was that it’s a slap in the face for all those who value basic human rights,” lawyer Eliza Rutynowska tells Dazed. “Women in Poland have essentially been told that they’ll be subjected to torture by their own state.”

“My second thought was about all those women who had already scheduled abortions due to some sort of malfunction of the foetus, and how they must feel knowing they’ve been left all on their own,” she continues. “If their partner helps them in any way, that person may be persecuted for aiding an illegal abortion, and can face up to three years in prison.”

Miko Czerwinski, the equal treatment coordinator at Amnesty International, says last week’s ruling is “a signal of a continued attack on women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights in a country that already does not provide enough access to contraception”. Czerwinski asserts that implementing a near-total ban on abortion during a global pandemic will make seeking alternative arrangements even harder. “This simple service should be accessible, and should not make pregnant people travel or look for it in sometimes unsafe places.”

According to recent statistics, less than 2,000 legal abortions take place in Poland each year, though women’s groups estimate an additional 200,000 women have terminations either illegally or abroad. 

“Those who are seeking an abortion will go abroad if they have the means, or order pills to their door,” explains Rutynowska. “This entails risks. If someone buys (the pills) for them – or even hands them the money or assists in any way – that person may face criminal charges. Effectively, Polish women will have to either figure out the means to go abroad, or be left to deal with the problem on their own.”

“Women in Poland have essentially been told that they’ll be subjected to torture by their own state” – Eliza Rutynowska, lawyer

She adds: “The government, ever so graciously, has mentioned that women won’t be persecuted for their abortions, but Polish women are all alone. Poland today disregards its women and persons who can get pregnant, and leaves them to fight for their own lives.”

Although activists are horrified by the government’s ruling, many say they are not surprised. “I didn’t expect this ban to be stopped, neither by protests nor anything else,” Karolina Więckiewicz from advocacy group Aborcyjny Dream Team tells Dazed. “It would have been naive if anyone believed that. The ruling party established the current situation with the constitutional court – how would they now depreciate this judgement?”

The Aborcyjny Dream Team describes itself as an “informal initiative” which aims to educate people in Poland about abortion and destigmatise the topic. “We are part of a great network here in Poland and across Europe of people who do everything so that any person who needs an abortion gets one,” continues Więckiewicz.

Więckiewicz is one of the pro-choice campaigners who launched the abortion initiative Abortion Without Borders in 2019, offering women living in Poland advice and funds to seek treatment abroad. “We managed through the spring lockdown and we’ll manage through this,” she declares. “120 people had their abortions abroad with us since October, and hundreds had abortions with pills at home. This is abortion reality, and this is what we are going to continue to do – always, no matter what the law is.”

Solidarity in the face of adversity can be most clearly seen in the mass protests which have erupted in Poland following Wednesday’s announcement. Demonstrators defied coronavirus restrictions to gather in the streets, waving rainbow flags and brandishing the red lightning symbol used by the Women’s Strike – the main organisation behind the protests. According to The Guardian, many carried placards that read, ‘My body, my choice’, ‘The revolution has a uterus’, and ‘You have blood on your hands’. 

Several protesters have reportedly been arrested. This comes amid growing concern about the excessive force used by authorities against peaceful pro-choice demonstrators last year. As reported by Euronews, protesters were thrown to the ground, hit with batons, and kettled.

“Police brutality varies from protest to protest,” Rutynowska tells Dazed. “We are never sure about what will happen. Last week – from what we have heard as lawyers – one protester faced racist slurs from a police officer and ended up in hospital. We are filling complaints regarding (detainments of protesters), many of whom will be faced with misdemeanour and possibly criminal charges.”

Friday (January 29) marked 100 days of protests since Poland first handed down its controversial ruling on abortion – but activists show no sign of stopping. “The state is treating us like we don’t exist and is constantly telling us to fuck off,” concludes Więckiewicz. “But we also tell them to fuck off, because we will be there for one another.”