Monday 27 January 2020

Poles apart: a people and its rulers at war over abortion rights

Anger: The 'Black Protests' against proposed abortion laws in Poland
Anger: The 'Black Protests' against proposed abortion laws in Poland
John Meagher

John Meagher

On Monday, millions of Polish women refused to go to work. Instead, they donned black clothes and took to the streets of more than 60 cities to protest about proposed legislation to effectively make abortion completely illegal there.

The country had not seen anything like it since the monster marches of the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. Polish expats in other cities - including Dublin - also hit the streets on the same day to raise awareness about the controversial plans put forward by the conservative, right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS).

Within 48 hours, the government found itself on the back-foot and on Thursday the parliament rejected the citizens' bill for a near-total ban on abortion. Jaroslaw Gowin, minister of science and higher education, suggested the trenchant opposition had "caused us to think and taught us humility".

Activist Agnieszka Graff says the scale of the movement caught everyone, including PiS, by surprise.

"The protest was bigger than anyone expected - people were astonished," she says. "Warsaw was swarming with women in black. It was amazing to feel the energy and the anger, the emotional intensity was incredible."

Former prime minister Ewa Kopacz praised people-power and suggested PiS had "backtracked because it was scared by all the women who hit the streets".

The so-called 'Black Protests' appear to have shifted public opinion on the abortion issue, with recent surveys indicating not just overwhelming opposition to the opposed ban, but increasing support for liberalisation of existing laws, which are among the strictest in the EU.

Ula Kapala was among an estimated 300 to 500 people who protested outside the Polish Consulate on Eden Quay, Dublin. "It wasn't just Polish people who were protesting," she says, "but Irish people, too. There was a strong feeling of togetherness about it. The laws in Poland are quite restrictive as it is, so there was a lot of anger that the rights that were there would be taken away."

At present, abortion in Poland is only permissible to rape and incest victims, in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and when the mother's life is at risk. "But some doctors refuse to perform abortions, even when the conditions are met," Kapala says.

She says there have been several incidences of that happening including the Dr Chazan case from 2014, when said medic refused to terminate the pregnancy of a severely deformed foetus. The mother was not referred to another doctor in time and had to go ahead with the birth. The child died after 10 days.

Another Irish-based Pole, Karolina Ó Beacháin Stefanczak, also attended this week's Black Protest. "I'm very relieved that the government is not going to push these ultra-conservative proposals through," she says. "I have friends who are very conservative, but they considered it a step too far and they took to the streets to make their opposition felt.

"While some people, myself included, would like to see far more liberal abortion laws than currently exist in Poland, I don't think there is enough support there for that. It is a more conservative country than Ireland, especially in the eastern part of the country. I don't think the marriage equality referendum that we had here last year would be passed in Poland today."

Ó Beacháin Stefanczak is married to an Irishman and has been resident in this country for several years. She took part in the fifth annual March for Choice event in Dublin on September 24 and believes a referendum on the Eighth Amendment looks inevitable. "It's something that is really on the national agenda, so I think it's only a matter of time," she says. "My daughter is both Irish and Polish and I would like her to have more liberal abortion rights both here and in Poland. It's an issue that is not border-specific - it's one that's important to women everywhere."

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