Body Politics: These Women Organized the Largest Anti-Abortion Ban Protest Ever in Poland
IN OCTOBER 2016, thousands of people across Poland didn’t turn up for work. Instead, they gathered on the streets of cities such as Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz, Wroclaw, Krakow and beyond. Dressed in black from head to toe, the protesters were out in full force to contest a new anti-abortion bill that was being proposed by the Ordo Iuris Institute [read our profile on Ordo Iuris here], an anti-choice group.
The Polish Women’s Strike was called by Marta Lempart and Natalia Pancewicz. “We were just regular people,” admits Lempart, a lawyer from Wroclaw. But increasingly conservative policies—of which the anti-abortion bill is the latest example—promoted by Poland’s right-wing government and the increasingly powerful Catholic church have stirred up a feminist and civil rights reawakening across the country. “PiS [Law and Justice, Poland’s largest party] were at our door,” says Lempart. “We knew we had to do something.”
Abortion laws in Poland are already among the strictest in the EU. The 2016 bill would have restricted abortion rights to cases where the mother’s life is in danger, and criminalized abortions performed for any other reason, including foetal impairment. In reality, it would have meant a near total ban. Infuriated women turned up to the protest with placards reading “a woman is a human being,” and “my body, my choice.”
The fact that the protests also took place in many smaller towns, and even villages, sent a powerful message to the PiS government. “When the government saw that people were protesting in places where they never expected any resistance—I think most of the protests were in cities with less than 50,000 inhabitants—they got really scared,” says Lempart. “These are the places where the Catholic church is very strong, there is no anonymity, everybody knows everybody, but people still went out to protest. That’s the reason that the anti-abortion bill was stopped.”
Even by conservative estimates, there are far more illegal than legal abortions in Poland—official numbers indicate between 1,000 and 2,000 abortions each year, whereas backstreet terminations number anywhere between 10,000 and 150,000. Women have to pay up to 4,000 zloty, or €930, for an illegal abortion, while doctors more often than not refuse to do the procedure or to provide emergency contraception using a ‘conscience objection’ clause. Many women travel abroad to Germany, Slovakia or the Netherlands instead.
The internet played a major role in mobilizing people across the nation. By setting up Facebook groups and events, people saw that they were not alone. “People in smaller towns had this idea that just a handful of scared women would show up to protest, but this changed when they saw how many protesters were taking to the streets across the entire country—that was important psychologically,” she explains. During the “Black Monday” strikes in 2016, Lempart and several others manned the help-desk, providing information, visuals and practical assistance. Today her team has expanded their efforts beyond abortion, to campaigning for an independent judiciary and resisting the rise of anti-fascism. And she says the tide is turning.
Although the Black Monday strikes managed to bury the bill, it resurfaced in March 2018. More mass protests were organized—one called “A Hanger for a Bishop” (a clothes hanger being a symbol of backstreet abortions), outside the headquarters of the Catholic church in major Polish cities, and another on the streets of Warsaw. For now, the bill is once again off the table. Lempart believes that, with the parliamentary elections fast approaching, the ruling Law and Justice party will not risk raising the issue again.
The Polish Women’s Strike has a presence in 150 cities across Poland, and Lempart and her team are working on a new campaign urging politicians running in the elections to show their position when it comes to abortion. “We want to reveal how they will vote—to pressure them to declare their stance. I think many will abstain from voting, but that will mean you’re a coward and you’re afraid of the church, which is valuable information for voters as well.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue