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Henry M. Robert
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Sejm vs. women

“Black protests” organizers and participants explained to The Day how they managed to block a total abortion ban
19 October, 2016 - 18:20
REUTERS photo

The total abortion ban bill, which has touched off a wave of mass protests in Poland lately, has been rejected at last. Witold Czarnecki, a ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party MP and head of the ad hoc commission that examined this draft law, said that the so-called “Black Monday” protests had been very important, for they “caused us to think and taught us humility.” On that day, dozens of thousands of office chairs became empty, commercial establishments closed, and, in spite of a torrential rain, Poles in black clothes but with colored umbrellas took to the streets in protest. In Warsaw alone, an estimated 30,000 people gathered. There were also demonstrations in Krakow, Poznan, Wroclaw, Gdansk, and other Polish cities. Actions of solidarity with the Poles were held in Ukraine, France, Germany, Lithuania, while social networking sites were full of hashtags #czarnyprotest and #blackprotest. “My body is my business,” “The government is not pregnancy, it can be removed,” the Poles said.

If the law were passed, a Polish woman would face criminal prosecution for terminating pregnancy and a prison term of three months to five years. The same would apply to the doctor who risked carrying out this procedure. A criminal punishment could also await the women who had a miscarriage.

The impression is that PiS has driven itself into a tight corner because it is too close to the Catholic Church and intended to “pay it off” for support. Although the church wields a great deal of clout in society, the ruling party has underestimated the maturity and cohesion of civil society. The course towards a “cultural revolution” and the “salvation of Poland’s face” has gone too far and resulted in a categorical rejection of the attempts to restrict rights. “The ‘black protest’ can be called a ‘new epoch,’ a ‘women’s spring’ of sorts in Poland,” sociologist Weronika Grzebalska comments. “The absolute majority of women believe that totally banning abortions instead of creating favorable prospects is medievalism.” The Day asked some activists of the recent events if it is normal that a democracy heeds bishops rather than citizens and if protests against the abortion ban can grow into an anti-governmental movement.

“KACZYNSKI IS AFRAID OF THE CONSEQUENCES – EVEN A SPLIT IN HIS PARTY”

Katarzyna CHIMIAK, historian and public activist, participant in Warsaw’s “black protest”:

“It irritated many women in the spring of this year that PiS MPs had rejected the public legislative initiative ‘Let’s Save the Woman’ which called for a more liberal approach to abortions. This included a program to prevent unwanted pregnancies by way of easier access to birth control methods and sexual education. When PiS put forward the proposal – from a group called Ordo Iuris – on a total abortion ban for debate in parliament, this caused a wave of disapprovals in the Internet. A relevant Facebook group quickly gathered 100,000 members. The traditional media also played an important role in mobilizing support for protests. The ‘black protest’ also received official support from many well-known people, including male journalists, actors, and public activists.

“The government agreed to concessions because the magnitude of protests scared it – more than 100,000 people took part in nationwide rallies on October 3. The PiS deputies who had voted for the Ordo Iuris bill in the first reading threw it into the basket in the second reading.

“Interestingly, the ruling party leader Kaczynski faltered under the pressure of the ‘black protest,’ whereas the actions of the Democracy Protection Committee in connection with the Constitutional Court and the mass media had not caused him to react like this, even though there were no lesser-scale protests at the time – over 50,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw on December 12, 2015.

“But it is more difficult for Kaczynski to play up and politically justify the abortion issue. In the dispute about the Constitutional Court, his main defensive line was that this institution had long been an instrument in the hands of the Civic Platform, and Law and Justice was now advancing a new law in an attempt to restore the balance of forces. Besides, abortions are a less abstract topic that potentially touches upon every Polish family and is considered as intrusion into the private sphere, which Poles don’t like. It is quite possible that Kaczynski is even afraid of a likely split in his own party.

“Unfortunately, the Polish Catholic Church is today slowing down the movement to common European democratic values. The point is that many priests are taking a hostile attitude to the European Union and do not understand democracy as a political system – that it means not only the power of the majority, but also protection of the rights of various, including, for example, sexual minorities.

“There is an ample protest potential in Poland, which was shown earlier by the actions of the Democracy Protection Committee. But the dispute over the termination of pregnancy has radically increased this potential, mobilizing a lot of young and very often apolitical people. They did not care much about the Constitutional Court and political reforms, whereas they strongly disliked intrusion into their personal life by means of the abortion law.”

“THE RULING PARTY HAS NOT DROPPED ITS INTENTIONS”

Karolina BRZYNCKA, rally organizer, Warsaw:

“Our protest is a response to the intention to toughen the 1993 law. Abortions are allowed now in three cases only: in case of a rape, if pregnancy endangers the life and health of a woman, and if the fetus has serious defects. But, assisted by the church and traditionalistic organizations, the Polish parliament is trying to make women slaves of their own fertility.

“We decided to use all the lawful forms of protest to prevent this. Unfortunately, we have only won a battle, not a war. Politicians have put off, not dropped, their intention to toughen the law, and debates are going on.

“According to official statistics, the number of legal abortions in Poland varies annually between 600 and 2,000. Yet women’s organizations report that the number of illegal abortions is several times as large. Besides, a huge number of women, about 150,000 a year, practice ‘abortion tourism,’ i.e. they travel abroad to have their pregnancy terminated. Poland also has the problem of doctors who use the ‘conscience clause.’ They not only deny patients the right to contraception, but also refuse them information about the condition of the fetus during pregnancy. They deliberately deceive patients with a high-risk pregnancy, which results in the birth of defective or disabled children.

“In the past 23 years, women’s organizations have put forward a lot of abortion liberalization draft laws, but parliament quashed them all. Polish women are furious over the attack of the church and politicians on their fundamental right to make a choice.”

A DIVERSION?

Magda, demonstration participant, Warsaw:

“Of course, it would be wrong to say that the entire Polish society is taking part in the protest actions. Have we had any impact? I don’t want to be too optimistic. Although the Ordo Iuris bill was quashed, leaders and members of the ruling party have been saying lately that termination of pregnancy should still be minimized. Some are claiming that raising this controversial question is a diversion. We should not forget that CETA and TTIP [economic agreements with Canada and the US. – Ed.] are to be signed soon, which is a serious problem for the Polish economy and society.

“The bill itself was not a big surprise – the conservative circles have been loudly expressing their dissatisfaction over the existing ‘compromise’ for many years. But, notably, the protest has also attracted a lot of believers who follow a traditional way of life – not for abortions but for the freedom of choice as a fundamental human right.

“There are a lot of popular movements in Poland aimed at liberalizing the current law in this sphere. Girls need to get access to sexual education: they should know how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, what an artificial termination is, and they must not be afraid to turn to doctors for a consultation. Draconian banning methods can only break life – women commit suicide, get crippled during ‘domestic’ terminations of pregnancy, or enrich foreign clinics. Only true incentives can increase the birth rate, while the ban on abortions will never improve the demographic situation.”

By Anastasia RUDENKO, The Day
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