Women’s rights advocates and allies in Poland vowed Thursday to continue to fight a near-total ban on abortion, calling it a breach of human rights and a sign that the country is regressing.
The constitutional court ruling, which abruptly came into effect Wednesday night, tightened Poland’s already restrictive laws to further ban abortions in cases of fetal abnormalities. It spurred thousands of outraged Poles to take to the streets to express their defiance, despite limits on public gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This decision is a declaration of war,” Marta Lempart, a protest organizer, said in a phone interview Thursday.
When the ruling was first announced in October, it set off a month of protests on a scale not seen since the 1989 collapse of communism.
It was unclear precisely why the government, after delaying implementation of the ruling for months in the face of the protests, moved suddenly to bring it into legal force Wednesday. The move came as Poland is struggling through the economic repercussions of the pandemic, a partial lockdown and a sluggish vaccine rollout.
The action could pose political risks for the governing Law and Justice Party judging by polls that have shown an overwhelming majority oppose the ban.
More protests are planned this week, and on Thursday night hundreds of people turned out in Warsaw under a heavy police presence. Among the protesters was Nadia Klos, a member of the Queen Tour, an LGBT group.
“The way they are forcing through changes in the midst of the pandemic is unbelievable,” Klos said. “It’s an attempt to take away the rights of half of the citizens by referring to religion, when it’s all about power.”
Another protester, Iwonna Kowalska, with a group called the Polish Grandmas, said the ruling was “a step backward.”
“This is what the communists would do, too,” Kowalska said. “They would wait for a time when everything is collapsing and then make changes.”
The Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s top court, which issued the ruling, explained the decision by saying that “human life has value in every phase of its evolution, and as a value, the source of which is in the constitutional laws, it should be protected by lawmakers.”
Far-right lawmakers and supporters of the ban welcomed legal enforcement of the ruling.
Abortion from fetal abnormalities should be prohibited, said Beata Kempa, a Polish member of the European Parliament, adding that she had been upset by discussions in the European Parliament on the issue. “Nobody at all mentioned the right of a child to live.”
Anita Czerwinska, a spokesperson for the Law and Justice party, described the protests as “a cynical battle against the government.”
Even before the tribunal’s decision, Poland’s abortion laws were among the most restrictive in Europe, allowing for termination of pregnancies only in cases of rape or incest, a threat to a woman’s life and fetal abnormalities. In practice, most legal abortions — 1,074 of 1,100 performed in 2019 — resulted from fetal abnormalities.
The right-wing Law and Justice party tried to implement a total abortion ban in 2016 and 2018, but backed off after mass demonstrations. This time, the government introduced the ban by using the tribunal, which it effectively took over in 2016 as part of a judiciary overhaul that has been criticized at home and abroad.
The decision by the tribunal cannot be appealed.
“The only possible action is on the international level, through the European Court of Human Rights and the U.N. committees,” said Adam Bodnar, the country’s human rights officer. “On the national level, the only way this decision could be reversed is by changing the government.”
The next elections are scheduled in 2023.
The ruling has a very personal dimension for millions of Polish women.
“Women are really scared to get pregnant right now,” said Dominika Sitnicka, a journalist at OKO.press, a news outlet that conducts research and analysis. “Yesterday was not just a symbol of something. It was doomsday.”
As a result of the ban, Polish women will be forced to “travel abroad or have clandestine abortions — for those who can afford it,” said Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for Council of Europe.
Though doctors in Poland who perform the procedure in cases of fetal abnormalities now face up to three years in prison, advocates are calling on them to defy the ban.
“Everyone has a choice,” said Lempart, one of the protest organizers. “Will you be an officer of the system, or will you be an honest citizen? We are speaking to every single doctor who will defy this decision: We are with you, and we will help you.”
Abortion has long been a contentious issue in Poland, a staunchly Roman Catholic country, and the current debate has underlined a societal divide between traditional religious values and more secular ones.
The Polish word for “apostasy,” or the official procedure of leaving the church, has been trending on Google, while the level of support for the institution among young Poles has reached a historical low.
The government has tried to frame the abortion debate as an attack on the church and therefore an attack on the people, said Edit Zgut, a fellow at the German Marshall of the United States, a move that could further polarize an already divided society.
Many Polish women say they are tired of being used as pawns in the culture wars.
Julka Tomiczek came out to protest in Warsaw on Thursday with her daughter and her partner. She wore a black face mask with a red thunderbolt, a symbol for some.
“What brought me here is revolt, dissension, rage,” she said. “I don’t agree to move back to the Middle Ages. I don’t agree to sadistic rulings.”
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