3rd October 2016 marked a significant moment in Polish women’s quest for absolute autonomy. The recent proposals for a complete ban on abortions have been met with a wave of resistance, as women take to the streets and voice their opposition.
A sea of black descended onto Polish streets last Monday. Thousands of women braved the miserable autumn weather to demonstrate against the government’s new proposals regarding abortion. The capital city, Warsaw, as well as Gdansk, Lodz, Wroclaw and Krakow all experienced large pro-choice marches, with women wearing black clothing as a symbol of their resistance. Polish women enforced a general strike, whereby thousands of protesters refused to attend work or school.
Poland, as a deeply religious state, already has strict rules concerning women’s reproductive rights. Abortions can only be carried out in certain instances. This consists of cases where the mother’s life is endangered, there has been debilitating damage to the foetus, or the pregnancy has arisen out of rape or incest. If the new measures are enforced, then there will be a total ban on abortions, with women facing up to five years in prison. Furthermore, any doctors seen to be aiding women’s abortions will be subjected to similar prosecution.
Despite the seemingly negative view of abortion in Poland, a recent poll suggests that most Polish people oppose the proposed measures. A poll carried out by Ipsos found that 73% of people believe that some form of abortion should be permitted. Such figures stand in stark contrast to the mere 4% of people who believe that abortions ‘should never be permitted’.
So why are these measures being put forward? The rise of conservative groups across Europe has been equally felt in Poland, as the right-leaning Law and Justice Party assumed power last year. With the current Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, declaring her support for a total ban on abortions, it is easy to see how anti-abortion groups have been empowered in Polish society. The signing of a petition by 450,000 people who support outlawing abortions was submitted to parliament, whilst some individuals donned white clothing on Monday in support of the proposals.
The issue of reproductive rights is not limited to Poland. The attention mustered up by Polish protesters serves as a reminder that women’s reproductive rights throughout Europe are far from secure. Currently, there are seven European states with stricter laws than Poland. These are:
- Northern Ireland
- Republic of Ireland
- San Marino
- Vatican City
Although the battle for women’s freedom over their bodies may be commencing in Poland, the war is very much present throughout Europe.
The stigma attached to abortions in Poland ensures that even though some abortions are permitted, illegal terminations far outnumber legal ones. According to current estimates there are around 10,000 to 150,000 illegal abortions in Poland each year. The introduction of further restrictions will inevitably lead to greater stigma, and consequently endanger women’s lives as more women seek illegal, unsafe means of terminating a pregnancy.
Worryingly, there are concerns that additional constraints may be placed on women’s rights. Women’s rights groups suspect greater limits on sex education in schools, and that the government may withdraw from a European convention on preventing violence against women.
It must be stated that the current proposals have only passed the first hurdle in parliament and still have some way to go before they become law. For now, the protests will continue, and acts of solidarity across Europe, in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and others highlight that the issue of reproductive rights is an international one, and not merely confined to Poland. Poland finds itself at the tipping point. Either they, with the help of the international community, halt the move towards increasing limits on women’s sexual rights now, or allow similarly repressive measures to prosper.