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Amid COVID-19 lockdown, Poland tried to ban abortion (again) — here’s what activists did

Amid coronavirus lockdown, the Polish Parliament discussed the possibility to further restrict abortion rights in the country. A similar proposal was rejected in 2016 after a huge round of protests. Now that rallying is not possible, activists found alternative ways to make their voice heard.

The proposal

In the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, the announcement that Polish MPs were set to discuss a draft bill which would effectively ban abortion sparked outrage in Poland and within human rights groups all around the world. The bill would ban termination of pregnancy in the case of an irreversibly damaged foetus, one of the three conditions under which abortion is currently allowed. Since roughly 98% of abortions in Poland are carried out under this circumstance, this measure is understood by its opposers and human rights organisations as an actual ban of abortion.

The decision came just ahead of the May 10 elections, which despite the current lockdown are still being held by postal vote, and according to the opposition and women right activists this timing is no coincidence at all. On the contrary, they described it as a deliberately opportunistic move to pass the bill without democratic scrutiny while securing the support of conservatives to the incumbent, President Andrzej Duda.

But regulations are already the strictest in Europe…

Abortion laws in Poland are already amongst the strictest in Europe. Pursuant to current regulations, abortion is permitted only in three exceptional circumstances: if the mother’s life or health is at risk, if the foetus is severely compromised or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. Yet, in practice, it is very difficult to get an abortion even when these criteria are met, and women are highly discouraged by society from undergoing this procedure.

When such regulations were adopted, in 1989, they were understood as a concession to the church for its supporting role in opposing communism, in a period when social conservatism was abruptly coming back to dominate Polish political life. Up to that year, the number of abortions carried out yearly in the country was around 500,000. Forty years later, that number has settled around 1,000 according to official statistics. Yet, if we count illegal procedures as well, the actual number is estimated to be around 150,000 procedures per year.

Indeed, while very few legal abortions are carried out in Poland nowadays, the reasons which make women seek such a procedure have not disappear at all. Many Polish women terminate their pregnancies abroad, and when they do not have the possibility to travel, they might find alternative solutions at home. Ever since these regulations were approved, a black market for pregnancy terminations quickly emerged to meet the demand, with an estimated money flow of USD 95 million per year.

The far-right fight against abortion and the black protests 

While current abortion laws are already strict, over the last few years conservative forces have been persistently attempting to further tighten them. The turning point came in October 2015, when the far-right party Law and Justice became the first political party in Poland to gain an absolute majority since 1989.  Only one year later, a law proposal to further restrict abortion rights was presented to the parliament, and party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, declared that the government “will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name.” 

Yet, three days before the final parliamentary discussions, women from all sorts of backgrounds took the streets all around the country, an event which would pass to history under the name of the black protest. With around 100,000 participants across 143 cities, towns and villages, the black protests became the biggest rally in the history of Poland. Accordingly, two days later the proposal was withdrawn, marking the first defeat for the Law and Justice party since assuming power.

The rage of activists

In this view, it is not hard to understand why activists described the government’s move as opportunistic. Irene Donadio, from the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, observed that “it’s not a coincidence that they are taking [the bill] during coronavirus lockdown when freedom of movement and assembly have been removed”.

Yet, the lockdown could not stop the Poles from exercising their right to political scrutiny, and they found a variety of ways to make their point in the face of the lockdown. On April 15, a bunch of protesters gathered around parliament carrying black umbrellas – a symbol of Poland’s abortion rights movement. Others drove their cars to block off one of Warsaw’s main roundabouts, Rondo Dmowskiego. Meanwhile, Polish women’s rights groups called for Poles to protest on their balconies, in shopping queues and by putting posters in their windows. In a similar vein, there were those who hung posters on bikes or protested virtually by posting videos online.

Finally, on Thursday the 16th, Polish MPs voted to postpone the decision, marking a second victory for the abortion rights movement in the country, for limited it might be. There is still a long way to go for abortion rights in Poland, yet, in a situation when taking action was harder than ever, activists gave the greatest prove of their determination, setting an example for us all. There is no lockdown to political consciousness, and we should thank these activists for reminding us.

By Flavia Di Mauro

Flavia Di Mauro è una studentessa di “World Politics” presso l’Università MGIMO di Mosca. Ha conseguito la laurea triennale in relazioni internazionali presso l’Università degli studi di Firenze. Tra i suoi interessi: relazioni Russia-Europa, teoria femminista, conflitti congelati e buona musica.

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