Poland: Mass protests force retreat on abortion ban

The following article was written by a member of the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Poland, Alternatywa Socjalistyczna in the aftermath of 140,000 taking to the streets of Poland against government plans to bring in ban on a woman’s right to choose. As a result of this mass movement it has been forced to beat a retreat, an inspiring achievement. 

By Paul Smith

Plans to impose a total ban on abortion have sparked a massive uncontrolled explosion of anger in Poland. On Monday 3 October a strike of Polish women was called, inspired by the example of Icelandic women, who held a nationwide strike in 1975. In Warsaw, over 50,000 demonstrated in the pouring rain, in Wroclaw 30,000 and Krakow 25,000. Tens of thousands more demonstrated all across the country. In Poznan, there were clashes with the police, while in Kielce demonstrators demolished a controversial homphobic exhibition. Even the police’s conservative estimates talk about 98,000 people demonstrating in over 143 separate protests across the country. These are easily the biggest ever protests in defence of abortion rights in Poland, far exceeding the protests in 1993, when the current ban on abortion was introduced.

The first wave of the movement started in spring with the anouncement that a right-wing pressure group had collected over 400,000 signatures required to submit a draft law to the Polish parliament which would impose a total ban on abortion and punish women with up to three years in prison. The barbarity of the proposals is illustrated by the fact that all miscarriages would be treated as suspected abortions and would be subject to criminal investigation.

However, already Poland has one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe, allowing abortion only in the case of rape, a threat to the health or life of the woman, or deformation of the foetus. In practice, even when these conditions are fulfilled abortion is often prevented by doctors who exploit the so-called “conscience clause” and impose their own religious beliefs on patients by refusing vital treatment.

This law was forced through at the beginning of the 1990s, when Poland was undergoing capitalist restoration: an economic and social counter-revolution alongside a few democratic reforms. But the sham of the democratic reforms is shown by the fact that despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of society (over 70% of the population was against an abortion ban and supported abortion for “social reasons”, which basically meant abortion on demand) the anti-abortion law was forced through. At the same time, religion was introduced in schools and the concordat was signed, which gave the church enormous material and political privileges. Politicians of all the parties called this a compromise. However, it is not a compromise but a national disgrace and it created a hell for women.

Huge spontaneous movement in spring

In response to the proposed ban this spring, a massive spontaneous movement was created on social networks. One facebook group, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, collected over 400,000 members in less than a week. Informal groups and intiatives sprung up all over the country. This led to a series of demonstrations around the country, each involving several thousand protesters.

One of the intiatives focused on collecting over 100,000 signatures in order to submit a “citizen’s intiative” draft law that would liberalise the abortion law, allowing abortion regardless of the reason for up to 12 weeks. Despite many voices within the movement calling only for the defence of the current, extremely restrictive law, the idea of a citizen’s intitiative was finally embraced by the wider movement, which managed to collect over 250,000 signatures and present its draft law to parliament.

After a two month break over the summer, the protests restarted at the end of September when both the draft laws were presented to parliament on the same day. This second wave began with so-called “Black Protests” (Czarny Protest) which were organised all over the country. Men and women dressed in black to mourn the death of women’s rights. Demonstrations were held in many towns and people posted photos of themselves dressed in black on social networks with the hashtag #CzarnyProtest and #BlackProtest.

Predictably, parliament rejected the draft law liberalising abortion rights, while allowing the draft law introducing a total abortion ban to go through to the committee stage. At the same time it was announced that in vitro fertility treatment may be banned as well as access to emergency contraception. This unleashed widespread anger at the arrogance and contempt that politicians and the church have for women and activated wider layers to get involved in protests than previously.

Polish women on strike

Around this time, inspired by the 1976 strike of women in Iceland, the idea was raised of organising a strike of women. This was not called by any of the trade unions, instead the idea came from within the movement by women who had no previous trade union or strike experience. However, due to the anti-trade union laws and the difficulty of organising a legal strike even by a trade union, women were not encouraged to actually strike, but rather to take a day off work on what was nicknamed Czarny poniedziałek (Back Monday). Unfortunately many women were prevented from taking part in this strike because they work on poor contracts and have no right to a day off on demand. For example, Lidl supermarket chain threatened to sack staff who took a day off on Monday.

Finally, on the day of the strike, OPZZ, one of the three major trade union federations, expressed its support and pledged to defend its members from victimisation, should they decide to participate in the protest. Thanks to this, many public administration workers, particularly in local government, were able to strike. A number of theatres and small businesses announced they would close that day to allow their staff to participate. Many more women who had no option but to work dressed in black to express their support for the strike.

The support of OPZZ probably also emboldened many teachers, who organised group photographs with pupils – all dressed in black. In many high schools, school students organised their own strikes, leaving school during the first lesson, often with the support of their teachers. There were some reports of young women being threatened by groups of men and spat on for participating in the strike.

In Warsaw several thousand gathered early in the morning outside the offices of the ruling party, Law and Justice. Later in the afternoon they marched in the rain through the city centre to Castle Square, where roughly 50,000 people gathered. There were predominantly young women, students and school students. Earlier in the week there had been an initiative to paint black tears on protesters faces, but this never really took off. Instead, thousands of these young women wore two black stripes on each cheek like the marks of a warrior. There was a very angry, lively mood.

Proteters had home-made placards that read, “The government is not a pregnancy – it can be removed”, “The revolution is a woman”, “Let’s take Poland from the fanatics!”, “Abortion in defence of life”, “My body, my fortress”, “My womb is my business”, “I am not an incubator”, “I am not your property”, “We will not give birth if we die”, “Women’s hell”, “There’s nothing wrong with choice”.

Unfortunately, the speeches were dominated by celebrities and political parties, such as the liberal party, Nowoczesna, and the pro-liberal democracy movement, KOD. Both of these are political organisations that have jumped onto the bandwagon and are trying to use the movement instrumentally for their own interests. They have opposed calling for abortion on demand, arguing that the movement should limit itself to defending the current anti-abortion law. Scandalously, representatives of feminist organisations and pro-abortion groups were not given a platform, despite the important role they have played for many years in fighting for abortion rights.

Fortunately, the organisers had only planned for a demonstration of about 5,000, so most people could not hear the speeches, anyway. After some time, protesters started to shout that they should march on parliament, and soon the sea of umbrellas moved off, leaving the organisers behind. The march was now illegal, but police wisely decided to allow it to continue, only policing the crossroads as protesters marched through the city centre, choosing their own route and stopping all the traffic during the rush hour.

Around 10,000 gathered outside parliament in the rain. There were no speakers, but the mood was loud and angry. There were rumours that several thousand protesters marched to Teatr Polski, the theatre where Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling party Law and Justice, was having a meeting.

The church reacted to the Strike of Polish Women and Black Protest by condemning it as a carnival of the devil, showing how out of touch it is with reality. Bishops were prominent in the media on the next day, sharing their expert knowledge about rape and infertility. One bishop claimed that it is extremely difficult for women to get pregnant as a result of rape because of the stress that the woman experiences.

However, Law and Justice has been taken completely off guard by the movement. It did not plan to introduce a change in the abortion law, at least not this year, but was forced into taking a position by more right-wing elements and the church, who organised their own “citizen’s intiatiative”.

What now for the movement?

Due to the scale of the movement, Law and Justice has reacted by announcing that it will prepare its own compromise draft law, which will probably allow abortion in the case of rape and a threat to the life of the woman, but not in the case of a deformity of the foetus. This, of course, is not a compromise at all, but represents a further tightening of the ban and is completely unacceptable. However, it shows that the government is beginning to feel the pressure.

This is a clear signal that the pressure must be maintained and the struggle for abortion rights must continue. However, Nowoczesna and Civic Platform, aided by KOD, are attempting to take political control and derail what has been a spontaneous movement. The results of the parliamentary vote and the declarations of representatives of Nowoczesna and the neo-liberal Civic Platform, the previous ruling party, show that they have no place in the movement and must be stopped. The strategy of only defending the present anti-abortion law must be fought vigorously.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to introduce a “no logo” policy that bans all political organisations from intevening with their banners and printed material on the protests, as has been the case in many towns. This will allow the compromised politicians in through the back door, while preventing smaller, more radical organisations from being able to get across their ideas and proposals for the movement.

The strike of Polish women on Black Monday was the high point, so far, but it has unleashed new forces that have, so far, not been present in the movement: thousands of young angry women who are only just entering into struggle and are now finding their own voice and gaining confidence. An imediate task of the movement is to help them get organised.

At the moment we have many very good but often competing intiatives and social network groups. However, often the people who originally set up the group are the “owners” of the group and control the facebook event, deciding whether there is a no logo policy or not. Often they also censor the discussions in the facebook groups.

What is lacking is democratic structures on the ground at a local level, involving activists from all the different intiatives that have sprung up. Such local democratic committees should link up on a national level to coordinate activities and plan the next major action. There should be full democratic accountability of all national representatives of such committees.

A fighting programme is needed

Above all, only a clear programme can achieve victory. The last weeks have shown that we can convince public opinion, but not if we start out like Nowoczesna by saying that we oppose abortion. That is the equivalent of admitting that the supporters of a total abortion ban have good arguments and means giving up the struggle without a fight.

If we boldly demand full access to abortion on demand and counter the arguments of the right-wing, we are confident that we can win people over to our side. We need to explain the need for the right to free, safe abortion on demand, which will save the lives of numerous women. This should be linked to the need to fight for decent, good quality, free health care provided by well-paid professionals and not religious fanatics who block treatment.

Many unwanted pregnancies can be avoided if contraception is made more easily accessible. Nowadays contraception is too costly for many young women. Meanwhile, under 18-year-olds can only visit a gynaecologist with their parents consent, which prevents them from being able to get a prescription for contraception. That is why Alternatywa Socjalistyczna demands universal access to free contraception. We also demand sexual education instead of religion taught in school by Catholic priests and nuns.

Above all, women want a real choice – not only whether to have a child or not, but also to have a child when they want to have one. That is why we support free IVF fertility treatment, but also a guaranteed place in free public creche’s and nursery schools for every child. But wider social and economic issues also affect a woman’s choice. It is necessary to fight for cheap good quality, state-owned social housing and a decent minimum wage, as well as job security. All poor working contracts should be abolished and replaced with permanent job contracts, so that becoming pregnant will not mean losing your job.

Fighting for such a change will require linking up with the working class organised in the trade unions. A good start will be to build closer links between rank and file trade unionists, firstly from the teachers’ union ZNP and the trade union federation OPZZ. The movement should also reach out to public administration workers and health workers who supported Black Monday’s strike. But such a struggle will also mean a confrontation with the economic system, capitalism, which is incapable of guaranteeing decent homes and jobs for ordinary working people.