Poland’s Anti-Abortion Dream Has Become a Nightmare
The country’s Catholic conservatives have achieved a long-sought goal—and may have fatally weakened their power in the process.
WARSAW—On the night that protests began, a crowd of furious women spontaneously marched from outside the court that had virtually banned abortions in Poland, past the headquarters of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, and towards its chairman’s private Warsaw home. Jaroslaw Kaczynski was not in. As protests snowballed into Poland’s largest revolt in decades, the veteran politician’s once firm grip on power has also been noticeably absent.
On Oct. 22, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal outlawed abortion in cases of fetal defects, the legal basis for 1,074 of the 1,110 terminations last year. The court was responding to a request submitted last December by 119 conservative lawmakers to review whether so-called eugenic abortions—in their words—contravened the constitutional guarantees of dignity and the right to life. Once in effect, the verdict will mean that abortions will only be permitted when pregnancies result from an illegal act, such as rape or incest, or when they endanger the mother’s health.
Kaczynski has long strived to limit abortion in Poland. During a previous attempt in 2016 he said that children should be born even “when certain to die” so as to “be baptized, buried, have a name.” However, the bill fell short of votes in parliament following a popular outcry. Now, the PiS chairman has found a non-legislative workaround. He has enlisting the help of judges from the Constitutional Tribunal, which the party packed with loyalists shortly after taking power.
The politicized ruling set off protests that have raged on across Poland for almost a fortnight. A medley of groups has joined the rallies, each venting their own grievances and expressing worries about the increasingly autocratic inclinations of the country’s government.
A mining union gave thumping backing for women’s reproductive rights, farmers rode tractors clad with anti-government slogans and confectioners made cakes for the occasion. Poland’s oldest chocolate producer said it would support staff who joined the general strike on Wednesday. Organizers estimate that events are now taking place in more than 500 locations, including expat communities around the world. Even in a staunchly Catholic country, the ruling has been deeply unpopular, unsettling up to 79 percent of Poles, according to latest surveys. It thus set off demonstrations of a size unseen since the Solidarity movement that helped topple its communist government in 1989.
Yet even before street protests began, it was clear that Poles would oppose restrictions to abortion laws, already among the tightest in Europe. Under communism the country had very liberal rules, with reports of Scandinavian women travelling to Poland for the procedure. In 1993 they were curbed under pressure from the Catholic church, and many Poles have since grown used to the “compromise” of three decades. According to a poll released on Friday, only 12 percent of Poles backed limits, with a majority in favor of keeping current rules. Previous moves have also sparked mass protests by women clad in black and waving coat-hangers.
This time, however, the reaction has been even more thunderous. Despite the raging pandemic and limits on public gatherings of more than five people, on Friday 100,000 angry protesters converged on the capital in the biggest show of opposition to the government since it took office half a decade ago. There was a sense of spontaneity. “Do you want to head to the court, the parliament, or to Zoliborz?” shouted a woman from a moving stage. Helicopters buzzed overhead and Eighties dance floor hits blared from a van. The crowd cheered for the third option and heaved towards the leafy northern suburb where Kaczynski’s house was already cordoned off by riot police. “This is war,” they chanted on the way.
Some believe that the verdict was timed for political ends. Since September the ruling party has squabbled with its two junior coalition partners. The government reshuffle that followed seemingly satisfied nobody and exposed deep rifts within the governing camp. Wojciech Szacki, a senior political analyst at Polityka Insight think tank, said that the abortion ruling was a ploy by the coalition’s long-standing leader to rein in control and “reunite members under a new banner.”
Experts, however, believe that PiS miscalculated the blowback. “During the pandemic people have tended to lock themselves up in their private spaces and treat health as a priority. However, it turned out that people were concerned with protecting the comfort of their social lives too,” said Ewa Marciniak, a professor of political science at the University of Warsaw.
The court’s decision has been convenient in at least one sense: It has served as a distraction while the government fights off charges of incompetence over its handling of the pandemic. Although Poland emerged relatively unscathed from the first wave, it now faces one of the world’s highest death rates per population. Its medical services are creaking. Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and previous European Council president, said that tackling the topic “in the middle of a raging pandemic” was “political villainy.”
Others believe that Poland’s rulers used the opportune moment, with elections not scheduled until 2023, to court the Catholic church. The institution, which retains much clout in a country where 33 of 38 million are registered as its faithful, has long pressed the government to outlaw abortion. “The party is signaling that it is still its real ally,” said Professor Marciniak.
Yet the party unwittingly released the wrath of protesters onto the clergy. Women broke taboos as they confronted priests shouting obscenities. Activists interjected masses with chants and vandalized facades with abortion helpline numbers. In response, nationalist groups formed vigilante patrols to defend churches. An estimated 56 percent of Poles already hold a critical view of the institution, and with the clergy warning about the “sinfulness” of participating in the strikes, pollsters say it is now shedding further support.
Set on the back foot, Kaczynski broke his silence days after rallies began. In a six-minute video he accused protesters of seeking to “end the history of the Polish nation” and called for the defense of churches “at all costs.” The message was variously read as an attempt to stoke culture wars—a winning tactic in the PiS playbook—or a rallying call to the party’s rank-and-file members. “He wanted to remind them that when the institution of the Church is endangered, it is he who swoops to its defense,” said Szacki.
Following Kaczynski’s missive, prosecutors were ordered to file charges against rally organizers for endangering public health. The education minister, Przemyslaw Czarnek, threatened to cut funds to universities that had cancelled classes to allow students to attend protests. Further fanning the flames, the speaker of parliament, Ryszard Terlecki, compared the protest’s red thunderbolt symbol to a Nazi runic insignia. In response dozens of scholars at the University of Warsaw said the interpretations, echoed by state media controlled by PiS, was “conscious manipulation or a manifestation of ignorance.”
Yet the confrontational approach jarred with the conciliatory remarks by other senior figures from his party, including the president. Andrzej Duda suggested that the police force, rather than citizens initiatives, “were there to ensure order.” His usually reticent wife and daughter made rare appearances to express their doubts about the new regime. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also called for people to stay home. “He did not denounce the protesters as criminals, but rather, appealed to their conscience and encouraged them to avoid spreading the virus,” said Szacki.
The crisis has thus left the ruling camp divided. On Monday, the government stalled enforcing the verdict, which will only go into force once published in an official gazette, claiming it needs time for “dialog and to work out a new position.” On Friday, the president sought to defuse protests by offering a “legislative solution” that would reaffirm the legality of abortion when there is terminal damage. This would preclude cases like Down’s syndrome. The prime minister jumped on board, while his deputy and leader of the moderate Agreement party, Jaroslaw Gowin, said that “the law cannot force women to be heroic”.
Protesters have rejected the softened proposal which they say would still mean accepting stricter rules than those in place since almost three decades ago. “It’s an offer along the lines of—I stole 100 zloty, and I’ll give you back 50,” said Katarzyna Lubnauer, an opposition politician. They have now expanded their demands beyond issues of reproductive rights, to a cleanup of the politics courts system and ultimately an ousting of Poland’s cabinet.
The government is now in a precarious position. The unpopular verdict, along with spiraling new coronavirus cases and deaths, have left it hemorrhaging popular support. A survey on Sunday showed support for PiS—which last autumn won elections with 44 percent of the vote—dropping from 42 to 29 percent support since the start of October.
The protest’s organizers have fought off politicians tagging onto its momentum. The main centrist opposition, mostly absent from unfolding events, also slumped by 4 percentage points in the same survey. Voters instead flocked to Poland 2050, a new formation built around by Szymon Holownia, a devout Catholic and popular television host who came third in this year’s presidential race and has retained the allure of a political outsider.
The PiS chairman is personally in a riskier spot than when he last faced a popular backlash. Back in 2016, his party had just resoundingly won elections on the promise to introduce new welfare measures, including popular child benefits. This time its flagship public housing scheme has just flopped, and there are growing grumbles from businesses maimed by the coronavirus lockdown. Previously Kaczynski could also rely on the loyalty of the newly elected PiS-allied president. Now that Duda has just been chosen for another five years—which will also be his last under Poland’s presidential term limits—he has less of an incentive to fall in line.
The demonstrations flaunt many young faces, and have been characterized by humorous placards with a handful of angry invective. “The protest has become a fight for recognition of the political demands of a younger generation,” explains Professor Marciniak. They also show no signs of backing down, with new formal structures in place and more street protests scheduled for days ahead. What’s already clear is that PiS, by accomplishing a long-held ideological goal, has weakened its own grip on power.