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Mon 30 November 2020
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Sian Norris reports on protests in Poland following the latest round of assaults on women’s rights by the Law and Justice Party and asks: why is the EU standing by and doing nothing?

On 11 November, activists believed to be associated with the far-right launched flares across a street, targeting an apartment building flying a flag bearing the slogan: Strajk Kobiet or ‘Women’s Strike’. 

The attack followed a day of far-right aggression in Warsaw, as nationalist groups clashed with police during an Independence Day march. It offers a worrying example of the violent opposition women in Poland are facing as they protest against the Government’s continued assault on their fundamental human right to bodily integrity. 

The Women’s Strike started on 22 October in response to a bill further restricting Poland’s already draconian abortion laws. Abortion was only legally available to women in cases of rape and incest, foetal defect, or if there was a threat to the mother’s life. These restrictions, introduced into Polish law throughout the 1990s, led to approximately 80,000-180,000 clandestine abortions every year, according to figures from the United Nations (which are disputed by the Polish Government). 

The new bill removed the exception for cases of foetal defect, adding a further legal barrier to accessing abortion.

Legislators may have hoped that COVID-19-related restrictions would prevent mass protests in response to the change – they were wrong.

By 31 October, an estimated 100,000 women and men took to Warsaw’s streets to demand women’s rights to bodily autonomy. Two weeks on, the protests are ongoing and show no signs of slowing down. While the activism is ostensibly about abortion, it also represents anger about Poland’s continuing shift towards authoritarian rule that has undermined an independent media and judiciary, allowed the Law and Justice Party (PiS) to centralise power, and increasingly attacked the rights of women, the LGBTIQ community and migrants.


A Far-Right Backlash

As well as the flares launched at the Strajk Kobiet flag, women protestors have also been attacked by nationalist activists some of whom, according to Polish police, were armed with knives and batons.

Across the world, members of anti-feminist forums shared videos of men allegedly assaulting pro-choice protestors, cheering on the attacks and calling the women “demonic”. They praised the Polish Government as being “absolutely based” (slang for ‘admirable’). One post in response to a video of the Polish protests demanded that the Polish Army start raping the women involved. 

Poland’s political leadership and supporters of the bill have deliberately riled up their nationalist base.

The Law and Justice Party Chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, called on his supporters to defend Poland’s churches from protestors – warning that the Women’s Strikers were part of “an attack meant to destroy Poland”. His call emphasises a narrative that the protests – and the right to abortion itself – are an assault on Poland’s traditional and Catholic values.

Kaczynski even committed to taking on a shift or two guarding the iconic Holy Cross Church in Warsaw against the protests, alongside a self-styled ‘National Guard’ which declared itself to be a “civil defence of Christians”.


The Bill’s Local & International Support

The new bill was championed by, among others, Patryk Jaki – a Member of the European Parliament who has a son with Down Syndrome.

Jaki claimed that under the existing law “healthy children” were at risk of being aborted and “both healthy and disabled children… give a lot of joy and build family strength. And through that, a strong Poland”.

Anti-abortion activist Kaja Godek, who also has a child with Down Syndrome and is the founder of the Stop Abortion project, was another staunch advocate of the bill. The re-elected President Andrzej Duda said back in April that “I believe that killing children with disabilities is simply murder”.

However, support for this attack on women’s human rights has not just come from inside Poland or even Europe.

Anti-abortion and ‘religious freedom’ groups in the US claim to have played a part for the restrictive bill’s success – including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF International) and the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) – the European branch of the American Center for Law and Justice. 

ADF International, a US religious freedom NGO and designated as a ‘hate group’ by human rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre (a designation the group disputes), has spent $21,338,551 globally since 2007, including in Europe. Following the passing of this latest bill, it explained on its website that the group had “intervened demonstrating clear protections for right to life in international law”. 

The ECLJ – the chief counsel of which is President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow – also took action to persuade the Polish Government to push ahead with the new restrictive law. It submitted an amicus briefing to the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland, claiming that foetuses are entitled to protection under international law and calling abortion a “violation of, or a derogation of, the right to life”.

The American Center for Law and Justice has spent $17,787,393 globally since 2007


Third Time Lucky for Anti-Abortion Activists

This is not the first time that the Polish Government has attempted to further restrict abortion in Poland.

In 2016, a similar proposal was met with Women’s Strikes, and again in 2018. During this period, the Polish Government successfully introduced new legislation that turned the morning-after-pill into a prescription drug, making it harder for women – especially in rural areas – to access reproductive healthcare. 

But the latest attack on human rights by the Polish Government raises difficult questions for the European Union, of which Poland is a member.

The EU recommends that “in order to safeguard women’s reproductive health and rights, abortion should be made legal, safe and accessible to all”. While the EU’s commitment to reproductive healthcare is non-binding, the continued assault from the Polish state on women’s and LGBTIQ people’s rights, as well as its creeping authoritarianism and attacks on the independent judiciary, is a challenge to EU norms.

Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union can suspend certain rights from a member state that persistently breaches the EU’s founding values, including respect for dignity and human rights. The situation in Poland raises questions as to whether a vote on this article should be triggered. 

President Duda has now backtracked on the restrictions, saying that he would propose a new bill allowing for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality while maintaining a ban on foetal defects. However, much of his party remains committed to maintaining the legislation, including Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The protests continue. 


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