‘A Hell for Women’

As waves of direct action erupt across Poland in response to the latest crackdown on reproductive rights, new networks of trans-national solidarity are developing.

15 min read

All images in this article are © Alicja Beryt, used with kind permission

At the end of October, a threat that had been dangling over Poland for nearly thirty years finally came to pass. The Constitutional Tribunal, a judicial body responsible for deciding what is or isn’t against the constitution, have determined that the existing abortion laws do not permit the procedure to be carried out in cases of malformed foetuses. Since 1993, abortion has been illegal in most circumstances; millions of people live in areas that have had no practical access since the Polish People’s Republic. But now, that access has been further restricted, to the point where only foetuses produced as the result of incest or rape can legally be aborted—and only then if you can find a doctor willing to perform the procedure.

This, along with enforced closures of stores on Sundays and a reworking of the benefits system to encourage high birth rates, is part of a broader process aimed at the further Christianisation of Poland—a key ambition of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS, to use their Polish initials). By no means are they solely responsible for this shift from liberty to restriction, though—and neither has this process come out of the blue. Poland was unique among Warsaw Pact nations in that its anti-communist, ‘pro-democracy’ movement was staunchly religious—churches were one of the few places that the communists were afraid to interfere, being fully aware of the risks of setting themselves in direct opposition to the Pope, particularly once Karol Wojtyla had ascended as John Paul II. While Solidarność (Solidarity) split into several factions following the end of the People’s Republic, most of the political groups it birthed were led by staunch Catholics. Lech Wałęsa, the most prominent of these, has a very different reputation in Poland than the one he enjoys in Britain or the US.

The result of this is that the Church in Poland holds a political power unrivalled elsewhere in Europe. In no other nation is any church so capable of mobilising so many. After the heavy Church influence of the 1990s (during which the heaviest abortion restrictions were implemented), most parties simply tiptoed around these voters during the 2000s, content to avoid introducing antagonistic policies while allowing the agrarian party (PSL) to hoover up votes in their regions—the most religious parts of the country generally being those with more rural populations. PSL were therefore frequent minority coalition partners in governments since the end of the People’s Republic. Despite the role of the PSL, part of the reason for the reluctance of governments in the late 1990s and early 2000s to go fully Catholic in our legal system was the need to continue playing at being in step, both morally and socially, with the European Union ahead of accession in 2004. We have seen similar attempts at compromise between a religious lobby and the EU in Croatia and Slovakia, as well as in which Serbia, which is currently pinkwashing its increasingly authoritarian domestic politics by having appointed a gay Prime Minister, but none of these countries have yet followed Poland in regressing from more liberal laws on subjects like gay rights or abortion access.

PiS, then, as the more religiously-minded group that eventually arose from the Solidarity movement, were the first major party to actively court the community of largely rural voters mobilised by their Catholic identity. Rather than simply avoiding promises of liberalisation on certain questions, PiS promised an active crackdown. They have been lucky, but also intelligently opportunistic, finding themselves as one of the flag-bearers in the culture war that has been stoked around the world over the past few years. Initially setting the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 as their attack point, leaping on the idea that Poland, posited as an inherently Christian country, would be damaged by accepting a tiny Muslim minority, they have since expanded to target LGBT equality and bodily autonomy—anything that would appeal to more fundamentalist Catholic mentalities. In this way, appealing directly to the Catholic right, they became the first party since 1989 to form a government without the need for coalition. Other parties had offered benefits packages before, others had been religious, but none had done both.

Polish social liberals and left-wingers have struggled to challenge this. One problem the face is that, owing to a major corruption scandal that hit the post-communist left in 2003, the country has evolved into a fairly rigid two-party system, polarised between PiS and the neoliberal PO (Citizens’ Platform). PO, to a British audience, can be summarised as being somewhere between the Tory centre and the Lib Dem right wing. A firm economic plan, but socially they will support whatever they think will attract votes. Donald Tusk is a prominent example—he served as Prime Minister for seven years, during which he and his party showed very little interest in LGBT or refugee rights, a fact which sits oddly with his pronouncements on domestic developments once installed as President of the EU Council. The Polish left certainly hasn’t forgotten Tusk’s leadership, though, and PO are, in certain quarters, despised just as much as PiS for failing to enshrine or strengthen key rights when they had the chance. All this came to a head during this year’s presidential campaigning, as voters wishing to avoid five more years of PiS’s Andrzej Duda, whose campaign had flirted with homophobic rhetoric, were left with no alternative but PO’s Rafał Trzaskowski. The latter, as mayor of Warsaw, was well remembered for making specific promises on pro-LGBT policies and then completely failing to deliver, so it was easy to be sceptical of any policy statements he made while campaigning for presidency.

Those regions where access to abortion was effectively nonexistent are also some of the nation’s poorest

Abortions, generally, have been severely restricted in practice since the law changed in the early 90s. In their last parliamentary term, PiS restricted emergency contraception, i.e. the morning after pill, by making it prescription-only (in a country where public doctors appointments can take two weeks or longer to obtain and private appointments start at €30), but shied away from tampering with laws on abortion procedures after mass protests and a women’s strike in 2016. Legally, it was still possible to obtain one in specific cases: for a foetus resulting from rape or incest, if the pregnancy was life-threatening, or in cases of severe foetal malformation. It is the last of these which has been removed as a legally permissible reason—although, as stated, in parts of the country this changes nothing on a practical level. Doctors had always been allowed to conscientiously object to performing the procedure, and in those highly religious regions, most, if not all, took and still take this option. As for pharmacists, while they have only recently been legally allowed to conscientiously object, they had previously achieved the same results through simply neglecting to stock the necessary pills. It’s a horrible coincidence that those regions where access to abortion was effectively nonexistent are also some of the nation’s poorest, meaning that the price of a procedure or pills, plus a trip to a different part of the country, could be up to a month’s wages for a young person in Mielec.

On top of this, access to contraception is severely limited, both by cost and availability. While technically a full range of contraceptive devices—from barriers like condoms or caps to hormonal methods and IUDs—remain legal, there is generally no public insurance reimbursement on them, even assuming one has found a doctor who does not excercise the right of conscientious objection. What has happened in response, since the first restrictions were imposed in the 1990s, was at first informal and ad hoc. This was then followed by coordinated assistance from groups both within Poland and abroad. Over the past year, these have organised into the coalition Aborcja Bez Granic (Abortion Without Borders), comprising activists and support groups in Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Czech Republic, among others, and providing help to people who do not have access to safe abortion. The internet has made all of this much easier, of course, allowing anonymous and discreet access to information and practical help. Weronika Śmigielska, a pro-choice activist from Kraków, explains:

The website maszwybor.net [‘You Have a Choice’], run by Kobiety w Sieci [Women Online] is an online forum where people who need abortions can log in and read stories from others who have gone through the same thing—mostly at home—and learn about the experience. They can also ask for someone to be with them online while they take the pills, if they have nobody to support them.

There is also Ciocia Basia (Aunt Barbara) in Berlin and Abortion Network Amsterdam, who can organise transport and an abortion in a local clinic if needed, and the largest group Women Help Women, who provide abortion pills and financial support to people in need of these.

Despite the support available, abortion has become a clandestine, taboo topic. This has profound effects. Young people who have no personal moral objection to it may still avoid having an abortion,fearing stigma from family members; in general, most people would not dare to mention it to anyone if they had one. A lack of sex education on the school curriculum, beyond a very ideologically-minded ‘Preparation for Family’ course, only serves to increase confusion and shame around bodily autonomy. Underlining how the importance of the Masz Wybor website, most people’s first idea of what abortion even entails comes from the billboards displayed prominently around the country, with mocked-up but uncensored pictures of bloodied, aborted foetuses rendered metres-high. These have since been largely banned, and the group behind the campaign has shifted its focus to warning about ‘LGBT ideology’—but for some months, half of our major intersections and roadsides featured gory scenery that put Eli Roth to shame.

The campaign to get these billboards and banners off city streets took two forms: firstly, direct action, in the way of standing in front of hospital pickets to obscure these images; and secondly, a legal campaign launched by members of Razem, Poland’s left-wing party. In the end, it was appealing to the court on the grounds of psychological damage to children that got results: while precedent trials meant that the judge was unable to find anyone guilty in this specific case, enough space had been left in those prior judgements to allow banning them on the grounds of graphic imagery in this instance. Therefore, anyone displaying these banners in public would now be subject to arrest.

The billboard campaign shows us a number of important things, aside from demonstrating that there are no moral depths to which these campaigners will not sink. They are backed by big money—months of nationwide advertising doesn’t come cheap. They are dedicated: there are several determined campaigners who have been working over the past decade to bring us to where we are today, such as Kaja Godek of the Foundation for Life and Family; a woman who has spent the past decade campaigning against abortion and LGBT rights, as well as failing to be elected as an MEP. There is also serious intellectual weight driving these social changes—Ordo Iuris, a pressure group of lawyers whose stated aim is ‘promoting a legal culture based on human dignity and rights’, define that dignity and those rights in a way that adheres more strongly to fundamentalist Catholicism than the current Pope does. They are educated—their strength lies in knowing the law, and exactly what they and sympathetic campaigners can get away with, together with expert knowledge on where their resources will be most effective. They have successfully positioned themselves as modern Poland’s most influential think tank. The group have also been adept at scaring off potential critics in the media by scouring anything written about them in the Polish press and suing for libel wherever they see a case.

As campaigners in Ireland knew—and it is to them and their successes that Polish campaigners turn for inspiration—removing abortion provision does not remove the need for abortions. In the hours following the decision by the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest legal authority in the country, to restrict access, Polish social media was swamped with people sharing resources and contact information for anyone needing help. These same groups have been helping out for years now—organising trips abroad or domestically to sympathetic, safe doctors, distributing morning-after pills where needed, and offering post-procedure care to those robbed of it by the legal situation and social stigma present here. For whatever reason, the government have so far stopped short of legislating against the pharmacological aspects of abortion, allowing this support to take place in a semi-clandestine way. One positive aspect of these further repressions is that the majority of the country now has access to the contact details for these groups, giving them publicity well beyond their financial means.

What seems very clear is that PiS have severely underestimated the strength of opposition to these changes, as well as the current mood of the country. After initially appearing to have coped well with the pandemic, Poland is now experiencing an apparently uncontrolled surge in infection rates, and the government recently announced dramatic measures to cope, including the conversion of the national stadium into a field hospital. During the same week in which the Tribunal made their judgement, the entire nation was placed into the government’s ‘red zone’, entailing the highest possible level of closures and preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19. The morning after the judgement, in fact, the state emergency warning service sent an SMS to every Polish mobile phone number, advising us, ‘Stay at home if you can. Help the elderly.’ As we’ve seen in many countries, being locked up at home and living in fear for half a year has given people a nervous energy combined with a sense that things couldn’t get much worse.

Bus drivers changed their destination boards to display messages of solidarity while stuck in traffic caused by the protests.

The first weekend of protests were more dramatic than any Poland has seen in recent memory. In Poznań, demonstrators occupied the city cathedral during Mass on Sunday morning, eventually being allowed to leave by police after having their ID checked and photographs taken. In Gdynia, the office of the local PiS representative was stormed by men in balaclavas, which some outlets reported as being from the local football team’s hooligan division. In Warsaw, crowds went from the Presidential Palace, to the Holy Cross Church, to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s apartment to scream pure rage at the respective inhabitants. And that was repeated by crowds at every city’s most significant monuments and most important churches. What is truly striking, though, is the depth of these protests—not just in the cities, but in towns of twenty or thirty thousand, from the fairly Westernised areas near the German and Czech borders, to those places in the supposedly ultra-religious east, near Ukraine and Belarus. In all of these places, people marched and chanted in support of bodily autonomy. Perhaps the pandemic has forced people to protest in their own town rather than travelling to the nearest city, but these protests were not centrally organised. This was spontaneous, and by no means limited to the usual protesters. Bus drivers changed their destination boards to display messages of solidarity while stuck in traffic caused by the protests. Even private hire taxi drivers displayed protest placards throughout the weekend.

Subsequent to that weekend, the country has erupted in direct action. I once wrote in this outlet that Poland has not lately been a nation of activism or demonstration. That has absolutely changed now. Largely, this has been led by young people—while the demonstrations have attracted participants of all ages, there is an overwhelming bias towards those under twenty-five. These are people who have grown up online and at least through computer screens have experienced a world beyond the increasingly theocratic society in which they live. At school, they had catechism lessons but no sex education—but they can (and do) talk to peers in other countries, and they realise this isn’t normal. A brief look through trending topics on social media sites in Poland shows that a good number are active in the various K-Pop fandoms that have brought their irrepressible energy to various progressive causes of late: creating explainers on TikTok and Twitter, donating what little disposable income they may have to fundraisers, and perhaps showing a little too much faith in the power of petitions—but the dedication cannot be denied.

This youthful energy is a boon to older activists, of course. Some have been protesting since the law was first changed in 1993, and thirty years of defeat and more defeat has an obviously deleterious effect on morale. Śmigielska, who has been a prominent speaker at pro-choice demonstrations in Kraków for several years now, explains,

These young people have been undergoing religious indoctrination at school for years now, stronger than we had even in the restrictive Poland of 10 or 20 years ago. The political and religious pressure on schools is so strong, but at the same time—we have Netflix! Connecting with people their age in other countries is much easier than a generation ago. Meanwhile, they have seen their parents losing faith with the world they were promised: one where we would need no help from the state, but would build up our businesses through hard work. These parents fought the state for liberation, so even when things went wrong they refused to ask for help—so what’s new is not just this energy, but a new vision. The younger protestors don’t see a problem in saying to the state, ‘you need to give us this, because we know what happens in other countries and we want Poland to be like them’; in this case, a place where we can get a free abortion.

The Netflix point is a good one. With an ever-opportunistic marketing department, the streaming service made big capital out of the title of their recent flagship series—the slogan ‘Sex Education: only on Netflix’ was an easy (if admittedly witty) one—and the company did something useful with this attention, too, co-producing a series of sex education videos based on topics covered in the show.

There is also, Śmigielska notes, the recent experience these teenagers have had with climate protests, a significant issue in a country as coal-reliant and smog-ridden as Poland:

Maybe they are on the streets for the first time for a feminist cause, but many of the same people were striking for the climate a few months ago. The first Extinction Rebellion wave was a strong movement in Poland, especially among that generation, so they aren’t new to protesting.

The shared oppression experienced by cis women, trans people, and others in the LGBT community has forged strong bonds

It is also worth noting that these younger demonstrators made up the majority of participants in pro-LGBT marches earlier this year, and plenty have returned with rainbow flags to the pro-choice demonstrations.

The visible solidarity between LGBT groups and the pro-choice movement is no accident—many organisers work in both communities, and there is a clear and evolving desire to make the latter as broad and welcoming as possible. Discussions over respectful and non-binary language are a very novel thing in Polish—even more so than English—but the shared oppression experienced by cis women, trans people, and others in the LGBT community (and all the crossovers therein) has forged strong bonds. Abortion Dream Team, as one of the newer support groups, are keen to be welcoming to everyone who may need an abortion, whatever their gender identity, as Śmigielska explains:

For me, the basic term to use is ‘pregnant person’. Of course, I’m a cis woman—I talk to journalists and they use the term ‘women’, that terminology is in official regulations, but at the same time, while I still consider myself in training, it’s important for me to try and be conscious of language, talk to everyone and fight their fight. At one of our demonstrations in Krakow, we had a trans man speaking—he was infuriated, telling us “yes, I have a uterus, but if I ever got pregnant I probably wouldn’t survive the dysphoria.” He desperately needs access to abortion, and while it isn’t in the mainstream, it’s important to remember people like him.

Across the week, major cities saw street blockages by groups of protestors, in cars and through sit-ins, and more is being planned now the movements are becoming more organised. There is opposition, most notably in Warsaw, where small groups attacked parts of the marches with fireworks, batons and pepper spray—but these groups seem disparate, frightened and disorganised. Some of them are dressed in football colours, but assaults on the women and teenagers marching have been condemned by each seemingly-implicated group of ultras in turn, so these attacks have been thankfully limited and isolated.

Nevertheless, there is a propaganda line within the right that these marches are the work of ‘antifa’. While there have indeed been some small anti-fascist groups in cities with a neonazi problem, particularly during the rough times of the 1990s, that is not the sense in which this term is being used. It is instead a direct import of the term as used by the US right; a catch-all slur for any progressive activism, whipping up reaction by hinting at a borderline terrorist group organised in the shadows. Nonsense, of course, but a worrying sign of how quickly this culture war has spread beyond political and linguistic borders. Those in countries such as the US or UK, where abortion and other rights are protected not constitutionally, but rather via. the compromise of tolerance, ought to be alert that this battle may well be theirs in the coming years.

For now, in Poland, a word that keeps coming up is revolution. From decades of not expecting anything from the state, the government choosing to introduce these repressive laws during a shoddily-managed pandemic, and only months after stirring the pot of homophobia, has jolted the Polish public out of grim acceptance and into action. The anti-choice lobby have had their moment of success, but it may yet turn out to be a brief moment.

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