Why is the revolution in Poland happening now, and what is the role of SRHR issues in it?
There is the convergence of different factors. The political party Law and Justice, after having cemented its power in 2019 just went too far. The conflict got real, the justice system has been paralysed for years, the ultraconservative right wing started to translate its fundamentalist vision into laws, the church was entwined in politics, and fundamental rights of members of the LGBT+ community have been stripped away. The controversial ruling of 22 October 2020 of the illegitimate Constitutional Tribunal banning abortion on the grounds of foetus impairment served as the spark for the majority of the society that has already had enough of Law and Justice’s rule. On 27 January 2021, the ruling entered into force and this gave even more fuel to the protests. This cruelty against women calls for revolution!
The SRHR-related war in Poland had its important phase in 2016, when women went on the streets in massive numbers and protested against the fundamentalist draft bill which, apart from banning abortion on foetus impairment grounds, was to imose criminal sanction on women who had abortions. This is when the feminist movement organised and massive prostes all over Poland pushed back the legislative initiative. It was an empowering moment to know that united we matter and could impact on processes. The protests in Poland incited feminist solidarity all around the world where other battles for SRHR were taking place.
So in 2020, after the “ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal” on abortion had been issued, the ground was ready and countrywide protests started again. This time they were different, though; they were spontaneous and had a specific self-fueling force. Women were joined by many groups of the society - the LGBT+ community, climate change activists, and many young people and professionals who were most greatly impacted by Covid-19 and had lost trust in the state’s capacity to deal with the pandemic. The new restrictions imposed on Polish society had been introduced abruptly, without the government explaining the rationale behind them. In this way the protests against the ruling of the tribunal turned into a country-wide anti-government movement. The protests continued even after the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal was published and became law, and they are still going on, regardless of the low winter temperatures in many cities of Poland.
The Polish Catholic Church is another institution in the political landscape of Poland that is in a process of decomposition. The church is losing followers and its political power is increasingly challenged. Church officials have been accussed in numerous pedophilia scandals, and Jean Paul II’s authority has been challenged by the alleged covering up of sexual offenders at the church. For the majority of young people, the religious authorities, untouchable so far, do not mean much. Many young people are turning away from the church, and the number of children following religion in schools is also diminishing. In a recent poll from November 2020, only nine per cent of people aged 18-29 had a positive opinion of the church, which, in a so called “catholic country” is quite revolutionary. In this context, it is worth noting that the protests were also happening in churches; individuals were entering masses with posters, churches were marked by the characteristic symbol of thunderbolts. The protesters chose an alternative form of prayer, a prayer with our feet.
Altogether, these processes herald an unprecedented social and political transformation.
Would you characterise the revolution as feminist?
Absolutely, this revolution is feminist. It started with women who initiated protests and then they were joined by young people and other groups who shared their frustration; we all met in anger. The frustration was about more than the ruling on abortion. Because of the state’s authoritarian and disrespectful methods of dealing with the Covid 19 crisis, professional groups, such as agriculturists, taxi drivers, and entrepreneurs, joined the protests, which then slowly transformed into an anti-government movement. In this sense, it seems to be inclusive and intersectional; it is run by different fractions of society experiencing oppression originating from the same source and surely symbolised by the coalition of the parties associated with the United Right.
Also, the movement is local, dispersed, self-organising and autonomous, acting at the grassroots. The power of the movement is also that it assembles all generations. Young people are the unprecedented fuel of this revolution but older generations are present as well. They may not always be on the streets because of fears around assembling generated by Covid-19, but they do support the movement.
The presence of the young brings new energy and makes the protests creative and spontaneous; they dance and sing, their language is radical, emotional and sexual and, for all these adjectives, very feminist! Popular chants include “This is war” and “Revolution is a woman” and, blunter still, “Get the fuck out!” and “Fuck PiS”.
The revolution is feminist in its postulates as well and the key demand is the dismissal of the government. However the Women’s Strike, which organised the protests, formulated five key areas for change; these are: full spectrum of access to SRHR, a secular state, implementation of the Istanbul Convention, improvement of the material conditions of women and making Poland an inclusive and non-discriminating country.
How has the Federation engaged in the protests and in the aftermath of the ruling?
The Federation for Women and Family Planning and member organisations of the Great Coalition for Equality and Choice were and continue to be prominently present at the protests, and we also report from them, including about police repression. We also prepared a list of lawyers to assist the protesters who have been detained by the police
The requests for assistance in accessing abortion or other SRHR services grew significantly after 22 October 2020, when the tribunal made its ruling. When it entered into force on 27 January 2021, women who in need of SRHR services were left without any state support, and many pregnant women were scared and confused about the consequences of the ruling on their rights. Numerous hospitals refused to provide abortion even before the ruling entered into force, and some doctors acted as if the ruling was binding before it actually came into force, which brought horrendous chaos and played with the health and well being of women. Between the issuing of the ruling and its entry into force, the Federation provided help in accessing abortion care to over 120 women who had been refused abortions in hospitals, and we continue helping women, including by providing information on initiatives and organisations that help women seeking abortion services. We have launched an additional gynecologist's shift on the Federation’s helpline, which is open every Saturday from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. We also contacted the management of the hospitals which had stopped performing abortions following the ruling of 22 October, and most of them changed their approach following our intervention and resumed treatments. Additionally, we received a written confirmation from the Ministry of Health that the ruling was not binding and, therefore, that hospitals contracted by the National Health Fund were obliged to provide this service. We distributed several thousand “Pro-Abortion Law & Justice” stickers and posters to organisations and individuals in Poland and abroad as well as several hundred pins with the slogan "We demand legal abortion".
We carried out many advocacy initiatives at the EU and the UN. We were involved in the process on the resolution of the European Parliament on the de facto ban on abortion in Poland. We reached out to WGDAW and other relevant UN mandates, informing them about the situation in Poland with regard to women’s rights, violations of freedom of assembly and police repression towards the protesters. Moreover, the Federation is coordinating the process of presenting a collective complaint of women to be addressed to the European Court of Human Rights because of the potential violation of their reproductive rights as guaranteed by the Convention of Human Rights, as a result of the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal.
Along with other NGOs and left party members, the Federation is a party to the Legislative Committee that will gather signatures demanding liberalising access to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy. After collecting 100,000 signatures, the draft bill will be submitted to Parliament and, in 2021, we plan to run a public campaign aiming to educate people about and destigmatise abortion. Meanwhile, we hope that another draft bill that has been proposed by the left wing part in October 2020 and which aims at decriminalising abortion will soon be adopted. This bill would be crucial in helping doctors provide the health care needed by women, as they are currently under the greatest strain now for providing illegal abortions they may be punished by three years in prison.
What new possibilities for thinking about SRHR issues does the moment provide?
The key new way for thinking about SRHR is that there is no way back to the so-called compromise law of 1993, which served basically to keep everyone’s mouth shut on abortion, a kind of a rotten egg which no one wanted to touch for the fear that things would get worse for both sides of the abortion fight. Now, it is clear that we won’t go back this road on abortion. This fire in the society needs to be used to introduce systemic changes to many aspects of fundamental rights, including, above all, the liberalisation of access to abortion and decriminalisation abortion, but not only. Our chances of success are becoming more real, which is reflected in the results of the recent poll in which over 66 per cent of Polish people were in favour of unlimited access to abortion up to the 12th week. The rise of young people in favour of legalised abortion is unprecedented and should be considered a tangible effect of recent mobilisation and of abortion becoming a subject of public debate.
The trends in the region partially overlap with the situation in Poland as far as limitations on people’s rights are concerned; especially in countries similar to Poland, we can observe a rise in religious fundamentalism and the growing impact of fundamentalists on state institutions. Slovakia is important to mention in this context, where laws restricting access to abortion were debated in the Slovak Parliament in 2020, and regressive tendencies also came to light in Croatia and Romania. Many countries in the region have not signed or ratified the Istanbul Convention which became an object of attack for fundamentalists, and this may be seen as a backlash in the region as far as the women’s rights are concerned.
What opportunities for solidarity (local, regional, global as well as across issues) does the revolution provide?
In my opinion, the greatest gain of the protests is the creation of a community that is united around shared values. This community will not disappear and I see a great potential in this, as it may lead to changing some cemented stereotypical behaviors and ways of thinking in Polish society. In my view, it is not a one-time revolt; it will bring a long-term societal change which seems to be unstoppable and irreversible, and which in turn will make systemic changes possible. The gathering of signatures under the draft bill “Abortion without Compromise” will be the first test; after that, we will see if the MPs treat us, citizens, seriously and if they support the liberalisation project.
The heartfelt engagement of young people strengthens the hope for the sustainability of change. The new generation sprang out of these events and they are fresh, sharp and expressive. All united, we will not let Law and Justice last long.
Chapter by the Federation of Women and Family Planning