Magdalena Szkarłat-Meszczyńska told her employees they could join nationwide marches across Poland with no fear of losing their jobs when pro-choice protesters enmassed in the streets late last year. The 53-year-old interior designer joined those protesting the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal imposing a near-total ban on abortion. In the northern city of Gdynia, Szkarłat-Meszczyńska watched with her husband as thousands of others rallied, despite coronavirus restrictions, with others honking their horns, waving from balconies and making a “V” for victory sign with their fingers in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“The feeling of solidarity was overwhelming, uplifting. It brought hope for changes,” she says.
For Szkarłat-Meszczyńska, like the million women and their allies who have taken to the streets for months since that ruling in October, she was not only marching in solidarity against further tightening Poland’s abortion laws. It was about much more, about freedom, which she says has been taken away bit by bit by the ruling conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.At first, after the October ruling, protesters, mostly young women, snaked through Polish cities chanting slogans like “My body, my choice!” while pitted against police in riot gear in a constant fog of tear gas. Marching, blocking roads and interrupting church services, they have sent a definitive rejection of the ruling government. They have donned clothing and brandished placards with the red lightning bolt insignia of the All-Poland Women’s Strike organization, symbolizing not only the country’s pro-choice movement but also defiance in the face of the ruling party’s assault on gender equity.
Activist: ‘The government knows its citizens are furious’
In October of last year, the country’s constitutional court ruled abortions to be illegal even in the cases of severe foetal abnormalities, which form the vast majority of Poland’s 1,000 or so legal terminations performed each year, according to Poland’s Ministry of Health. Poland, a member of the European Union since 2004, received a resounding denunciation of this new law from European Parliament in November last year. With one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe already in place, this new law would only allow termination in cases of incest, rape and when a mother’s life is at risk.
Marta Lempart, the 41-year-old lawyer and leader of Women’s Strike, the driving force behind the protests, says the time is ripe to take on crises in human rights and healthcare, corruption and the government’s handling of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Lempart is often at the front of the protests in Warsaw, sporting a black face mask with the signature red bolt, armed with a large megaphone in one hand, and a sign in the other.
“The government knows its citizens are furious,” she says, before referencing one of the protesters’ most popular slogans. “This is war.”
Protesters have worldwide support, from across Europe to India. American feminists Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Chesler, Merle Hoffman and Naomi Wolf wrote an open letter to the women of Poland saying, “We stand with you and attest that women’s rights are human rights.”
This is not the first time that women on the streets of Poland have managed to successfully challenge the government over their reproductive rights. Women’s Strike was formed in 2016 in the wake of large decentralized protests the first time PiS attempted to pass the near-total ban. After marches took place in over 100 cities, officials distanced themselves from the proposed law.
The consistent public denunciation of the court ruling has not only empowered women in subsequent weeks to re-examine their country’s stance on gender equity, it has staved off the ruling party’s implementation of this ruling, leaders of Women’s Strike say.
Typically, the Polish government publishes the decision of the court and passes it into law immediately. But nearly three months have passed since the court’s ruling and the future of the near-total ban hangs in jeopardy, with the rightwing government facing its biggest challenge since it came to power five years ago.
Piotr Mueller, the government spokesman, when asked about the protests, said: “At the moment, we all need peace and discussion around this verdict, [we need to] mute social emotions and [need] a calm discussion among experts.”
In a separate radio interview, when asked about Women’s Strike, he said there is “no chance for dialogue” with the organizers.
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The movement also has its opponents in a country with deep Roman Catholic roots and where politics and religion are often connected. As PiS’ leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński said while campaigning in 2019: “Christianity is part of our national identity. The church was and is a preacher and possessor of the only system of values fully known in Poland.” Since the protests began, the Church in Poland has been silent about the failure of the government to implement the near total abortion ban.
Approximately a third of the country’s citizens are opposed to the pro-choice marchers, according to recent polls. Some of the rallies have been interrupted by nationalist counter-protesters who have shot tear gas at the crowds and tried to punch women as they march. A few of those counter-protesters have been seen choking protesters and many are almost instantly arrested by police. Recent opinion polls show 70% of Polish citizens support the Women’s Strike protests. Trust in the PiS ruling party has also fallen: A Kantar poll from December shows that two thirds of the respondents expressed a negative opinion about the ruling party, a record decline in support.
At the start of protests, Kaczyński went on national television to urge that the rallies be crushed because they are a threat to Poland. The “nihilist” riots, he said, are directed against the church, a bastion of morality, and they must be protected “at any price.”
In response, some protesters shout at rallies: “If altar boys could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.”
Emboldened activists are taking aim at rightwing government
Young women across the country have been emboldened by the protests, the country’s largest since the end of Communism 30 years ago, taking aim at a government that has frequently targeted LGBTQIA+ people and threatened to abandon domestic violence protection measures for women.
Dorota Kotas, an openly gay writer based in Poland’s capital Warsaw, decided to regularly attend the pro-choice protests, even though she has previously met threats at other,LGBTQIA+ protests for drawing a rainbow in chalk.
“It would be more terrifying to sit home alone and listen to the news from the demonstrations,” the 26-year-old says. “These protests are about me, my friends, about all the women I know but really about people in general, because the decisions of the authorities have a very broad impact on everyone.”
Though the ruling has yet to be implemented, protests are continuing months later with fewer people. Still, protest organizers say they have expanded their goals, setting their sights on abolishing the current government and its policies.
“It must be hard to rule the country if the agenda is set by someone else,” says Lempart with a wry laugh.
Movement spreads beyond Poland
In recent days, as women in Poland continue to fight, in the Catholic country of Argentina, home to the Pope and head of the Catholic Church, abortion was legalized on December 30 after five years of grassroots-organized mass marches mobilized via social media. It’s a signal to women in Poland that change may be imminent, even if it may come slowly.
One of the largest, and earliest, protests shortly after the court ruled on the law set the tone for Polish women’s long-term battle. On October 30 in the center of Warsaw, women took turns coming to a small makeshift stage framed by plastic palm tree, where they relayed to large crowds their tales of abortion.
“I am here to speak not only for me, but for my mother and my grandmother,” an unidentified woman shouted to loud applause as a police helicopter whirred above. Like many of the estimated 150,000 Polish women who have abortions each year, she travelled to one of the nearby countries — Slovakia, Czech Republic and Germany — where an industry has sprung up for Polish women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. With thousands of women going abroad for abortion and others ordering abortion-inducing pills online to take in Poland (which is legal if self-administered and with no outside assistance), 1 in 3 pregnancies in Poland ends in abortion, according to state pollster CBOS.
Her voice trembling yet full of conviction, the woman, who asked not to be identified, said she recently confronted her conservative, PiS-voting father. “I said, ‘Happy birthday, Dad, I hope that at 74 you will learn to think independently and critically and you will stop believing this fucking propaganda. Because your wife and your daughter have had abortions.’”