Populism, Poland and the fight for Reproductive Freedom

Laura Cook discusses the bleak future of reproductive rights in Poland, following the introduction of tighter abortion restrictions and widespread protests from both sides of the issue.

Following the move to further constrain abortion law to the point of an almost complete ban by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal last week, widescale protests and street demonstrations have risen up across Poland. 

The pro-choice stance is symbolised by the red lightning bolt, which has a long history within the Polish ‘Women’s Strike’ movement. A nationwide strike was held on Wednesday, the day the law came into effect. Counter-violence from right-wing extremists, such as the All Polish Youth, has been condoned by Deputy Prime Minister Kaczynski. The rage and despair of protesters whilst initially activated by the recent law has spread to target the populist party, PiS, leading the current government. 

‘Women’s Strike’ has employed the slogan ‘This is War’, which has been displayed on placards by opposition members in Parliament. The invocations of war have become more daunting as the military and riot police have been deployed onto the streets.

What is most shocking about this violence against Poles requiring abortion access is the way reproductive rights are considered an acceptable sacrifice by way of a political ‘move’. The damage this law has the power to inflict seemed to finally dawn upon Poland’s president Andrzej Duda when he recently retracted his support. Whether he is standing up for true justice or simply attempting to stamp out dissenting voices and escalating tension is uncertain… The motivations behind the law are disturbing. 

The New York Times quoted a fellow from the German Marshall Institute arguing that this play comes straight from the ‘ultimate populist manifesto’.  It is an incendiary act to ignite existing animosity between groups on either side of the deep political divisions in Poland. 

The Catholic Church remains a potent influence upon conservative politics. Witnessing the desperation amongst Polish people on the streets reminded me of the pain I felt for Ireland’s protesters before the Eighth amendment was repealed in 2018. The two countries share the deep institution of Roman Catholicism, however in Ireland the Church ceased to have such institutional power over the debate on abortion rights. To the detriment of human rights in Poland the Church still maintains a tight grip on abortion policy. It is concerning that the right-wing in Poland have twisted the discourse to such an extent that Kaczynski called for his supporters to defend churches ‘at every price’. Why is this fervour directed at the preservation of religious buildings and not in the defence of bodily autonomy?

The number of legal abortions in Poland amounts to 1,000 per year, but women’s groups state that between 80,000 to 120,000 abortions are carried out illegally or abroad. The symbol of the coat hanger has been central at protests to signal the impossible choices pregnant people are having to make. And now it is by method of this very real threat to human rights that divisive tactics are being employed by the PiS party. 

Tensions are high globally with the omnipresence of Covid-19 and as Kaczynski calls for patriotism from his supporters, the population of Poland is caught in a snare. The escalation of tensions are most concerning in combination with the aggressive military-language used by Kaczynski as he seeks to ‘win the war declared directly by our opponents’. What is a desperate situation in its isolation is made all the more so toxic within the context of wider political violence. 

Another concern growing in my mind is the comparative authoritarian abuse of power in the US when Trump pushed through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation into the Supreme Court, a month before the presidential election. The illegitimacy of this reflects a worrying trend in political manoeuvres which contradict democratic processes, especially as Obama was blocked in an attempt to move his nominee into a vacancy 9 months before an election. 

In Poland, organisers of the protest argue that  rulings from the Constitutional Tribunal are invalid since it was ‘illegitimately taken over’ by the PiS. PiS justify their choices by citing the country’s constitution, in denial of the clear public sentiment which disagrees with furthering restrictions on abortion.  According to a survey cited by the BBC, 59% of Polish citizens questioned disagreed with this most recent restriction. Clearly, this is another case of male politicians calling the shots on reproductive rights. 

The voices of Poland’s pro-choice protesters are increasingly distressed as this destruction of reproductive rights aligns with the threat of the current pandemic. The scale of the protests is evidence of the deep sense of injustice, particularly amongst the younger generation in Poland. At present the country’s political stage is monopolised by a party with scary policy on LGBT rights, reproductive choice and deep-rooted sexism. PiS have long held an anti-feminist stance which is tied to their alliance with the Catholic Church. The path ahead to reproductive freedom in Poland appears obstructed by the entrenchment of populism as it is now. 

Artwork by Laura Cook.

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