"You have blood on your hands," "Women's hell", “Abortion is okay”, “Fight the virus, not women” and "Let us pray for the right to abortion" are just some of the slogans that have filled the streets and cities of Poland in the last week.
Last Thursday’s ruling by the Constitutional Court closed one of the few remaining legal grounds for abortion in Poland. Abortion is now only allowed when the pregnancy threatens the woman's health or is the result of rape or incest, (such cases accounted for just 2.4% of abortions in the country last year). The decision is a drastic tightening of laws that were already some of the strictest in Europe.
The diktat by the conservative-nationalist party (the PiS) — who are also anti-LGBT — will force women to give birth to babies with severe conditions and no chance of survival, as fetal abnormality abortions have now been ruled out.
This ruling doesn’t reflect the country’s view as a whole - little over 10% support it. In the seven days since, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest in support of women’s rights. Protestors have stormed churches (where much of the impetus for the decision came from) wearing red robes and white bonnets as a nod to the depressing dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale. Exploiting religion, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the deputy prime minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, urged supporters to “defend Polish churches… at all costs.”
“My new favourite word is wypierdalaj. Which means get the fuck out and that is what they're shouting in the street”, says Mara Clarke, a member of Abortion Without Borders, and founder of the Abortion Support Network, an UK-based organisation that uses public donations to offer practical advice and monetary grants to help women end unwanted pregnancies. The former does similar for women in Poland, and its name - Aborcja Bez Granic or Abortion without Borders - has been spray-painted across several buildings, including St John's Archcathedral in Warsaw. Its helpline number was also brandished in parliament by Beata Maciejewska, deputy of the Left party. "It's beautiful that anybody in Poland who needs an abortion knows where they can go”, says Mara.
Since their inception in December 2019, they have helped over 2,000 people — “and that's just us, our little organization... we’re so tiny” — with information, funding and with help in accessing safe abortions either by travelling abroad, or ordering medical abortion pills online. For Mara who was born in America but lives in London, her work poses no personal threat, but she knows abortion aid workers on the ground in Poland who “work in bulletproof vests”. The law punishes causing the death of a conceived child with sentences of up to two years.
Armed with harrowing stories, these women see no other option but to fight. “We had the death of Savita Halappanavar [whose death from abortion refusal spurred Ireland’s abortion rights campaign]. When Ms Y, a teenage refugee was raped, she went on hunger strike in the hope of getting an abortion, but instead, she was given a C-section at 25 weeks' gestation (14 weeks early).
Then there was the woman who at 14 weeks, had a brain aneurysm and went into a coma. Instead of allowing her to die, the government kept her alive until she was 24 weeks, and then they were going to harvest her [by keeping her body as a cadaveric incubator]. They had to go to court, it was disgusting. The entire case was decided on the fact that her body was inhospitable to the fetus.”
“Making abortion against the law doesn't stop abortion. It just makes it so that when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, women with money have options and women without it, have babies.” Mara is unequivocal in her belief that, in Poland, abortion is a class issue too.
Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS has been steadfast in their adherence of Catholic values – after all, the church is central to Polish society. Many priests played a pivotal part during the fight for independence from communist rule in the 80s, and so it was upheld as sacrosanct. But now popularity is – unsurprisingly – waning, particularly among the young who feel desperately betrayed.
The government has repeatedly tried to make abortion laws stricter, but it failed to garner votes in Parliament. As soon as a legislation was drawn which barred judges from questioning judicial appointments made by the president, they managed to succeed. On Thursday, the majority of judges in court for the ruling were nominated by the ruling party. Leftists say the PiS have manipulated the courts and the media too. So where do the media currently stand on it all? One programme – TVP's Rodzinny ekspres – reminded viewers that in medieval Poland women walked around town squares with stones around their necks if they had caused an argument in the public sphere. The presenter asserted, “Who knows whether similar rules would not be worth introducing in the public life of today?” However there has been support too, Jerzy Baczyński, Editor-in-chief of the weekly news magazine Polityka, penned that “the decision to de facto ban abortion in Poland is barbaric. We wholeheartedly support the protesters. Women cannot be forced to give birth to unviable fetuses.”
The ruling joins the depressing news that Amy Coney Barrett was sworn into the Supreme Court of the United States, with a 6–3 conservative majority. Barrett advocates for overturning legalized abortion and tomorrow the justice will consider a case that could directly challenge Roe v. Wade — the ruling that legalised abortion across America.
The furore of protestors shows no sign of abating, and neither does the work Mara and her team so gallantly undertake. “The more awareness of the situation in Poland in terms of the fact that Abortion Without Borders exists, the easier it is going to be for us to expand our services to other countries in Europe”, she continues, “Why is everything about reproduction and women dirty and secret?”