Black flooded the streets of Warsaw and 60 other Polish cities on Oct. 3. It is estimated that upwards of 6 million women, dressed in black to symbolize mourning for their reproductive rights, marched to strike against a law that would ban all abortions.
“I have never seen such huge protests,” wrote Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland in an Oct. 6 Guardian op-ed. “Something snapped in Polish women; we are empowered and we won’t stop. The protests were so spontaneous: with barely a few days’ notice thousands of women were walking out of work, and if they couldn’t get the day off, many told me, they said to their bosses they would not return because they could not work alongside people who did not believe in their rights.”
Proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and supported by the Catholic Church (87 percent of Poles belong to it), the law would criminalize all abortions, punishing women who have them and the doctors who perform them with up to five years in jail. Not only could miscarriages be investigated, but doctors would be unable to perform prenatal tests, do Caesareans or treat women with conditions like pre-eclampsia for fear the fetus might die and they would go to jail. (Washington Post, Oct. 3)
Even under the current law, abortions are allowed only for women who are pregnant due to rape or incest, whose health and life are at risk, or if the fetus is severely deformed. Because the law is among the most restrictive in Europe, with the exception of total bans in Malta and the Vatican, only about 2,000 legal abortions are performed yearly. However, it is estimated that 50,000 are performed illegally, while up to 100,000 Polish women seek the procedure in other European countries. (Reuters, Oct. 3)
When abortion was legal in Poland
But that was not always the case. After the Soviet Red Army liberated Eastern Europe from Nazi rule at the end of World War II, governments were set up whose stated goal was socialism and gender equality. Abortion eventually became legal in Poland, several decades before that happened in Western Europe and the U.S. The April 8, 2011, Guardian reported abortion “was available on demand by the 1960s.”
But after capitalism was restored in Poland in the 1990s, workplace childcare and all kinds of state support for family care were cut, so that today 42 percent of Polish women don’t work outside the home or those who do must work part-time. According to the Guardian, “In 1993 the church was suddenly re-emboldened and managed in concert with the rightwing to change the abortion law from the world’s most open to one of the most restrictive.”
Truth be told, the resurgence of the Catholic Church was hardly “sudden.” The church had been fighting tooth and nail against socialism ever since liberation from the Nazis. Beginning in 1980, it supported the anti-communist leader of “Solidarity,” Lech Walesa, who led a delegation in 1981 to meet with Pope John Paul II — born Karol Wojtyla in Poland. The “Polish Pope” was highly favored by U.S. imperialism, bolstering its plan to kick communism out of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.
But this sudden uprising of Polish women has disrupted the church’s plans. Immediately before the parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, three days after the women’s strike, the bishops’ conference issued a statement supporting “life from conception to natural death,” adding, “But we do not support rules that would punish women who have an abortion.” The Polish parliament then overwhelmingly rejected the ban — 352 to 58. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo announced plans for more “modest” restrictions later this year and for more money to help families with disabled children. (The Guardian, Oct. 6)
Access to abortion is a basic human right
The women organizing the protest called it a strike, inspired by the Icelandic strike for women’s rights on Oct. 24, 1975, which involved 90 percent of the adult female population. In addition to solidarity actions in Iceland, women demonstrated in Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Belfast, London and Paris, as well as in other cities in France, Taiwan, Russia and globally in the “Twittersphere.”
There was a ripple effect in the U.S., where the right to legal, accessible abortion is under attack from Republican candidates Donald Trump and Mike Pence. The quote from Krystyna Kacpura was posted on the Center for Reproductive Rights’ website (crr.org) on Oct. 7. CRR noted that it had worked with Kacpura’s organization in the past and hoped to continue in the future.
The right to abortion is a basic human right. That was validated last March by Juan E. Méndez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, who defined denial of access to abortion as “torture.” The rising of Polish women has affirmed that right.