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Author: Jade MacEwan
Photo by Zuza Gałczyńska on Unsplash

On 22 October, Poland’s Constitutional Court ruled that abortion would be banned in the case of foetal defects, meaning that abortion would now only take place if a woman has become pregnant through rape or if her life is threatened by the pregnancy. In Poland, which already had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, 98% of all abortions are carried out due to foetal defects. The new law puts the health of Polish women at risk, as they will still require abortions. Banning abortion even in the case of foetal defects means that women will be forced to have illegal, underground abortions or travel abroad to have an abortion (The Euroculturer, 2020). In addition to the ruling banning women from having abortions, any doctors or pharmacists who help women would now risk imprisonment of up to three years (Heroine, 2020).

Since this ruling was announced, Poland has experienced mass protests, not only against the Constitutional Court itself, but also against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Polish Catholic Church, which is viewed as being responsible for the ruling to further restrict abortion (Notes from Poland, October 2020). Leaders in the Catholic Church have welcomed the new ruling, as they have long pushed for more restrictive abortion laws. However, some members of the Catholic Church have concerns and feel that the Church was already having more and more trouble connecting with the Polish youth. Konstancja Ziolkowska, who is on the editorial board of a left-wing Catholic magazine, Kontakt, says that “there are people so disgusted with what is happening in the Church that they walk away from it” and she feels like a minority as a member of the Catholic left, but does not want to leave the Catholic Church to the conservative “radicals”. Others, such as Pawel Guzynski, from the Dominican religious order, feels that the Church has become far too involved in politics and needs to step back (The Finance Info).

A number of symbols and slogans have appeared in the pro-choice protests. One symbol which is seen very often during these protests is the red lightning bolt. This lighting bolt is part of the logo of Strajk Kobiet, or “Women’s Strike”, which is the main organiser of the protests. Graphic designer Ola Jasionowska, who created the symbol, states that it means “watch out, beware, we won’t accept that women are being deprived of their basic rights” and that it is used to symbolise a warning. Lightning bolts have been used in the past by resistance groups such as the “Grey Ranks”, a paramilitary group which resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War. Critics trying to discredit the protests have tried to compare the lightning bolt to the Nazi SS insignia and have been calling the protestors “left-wing fascists”. Left-wing MP Anna-Maria Zukowska has said that such comparisons to Nazi symbols are “insulting Polish heroes”, such as those resistance groups who also used the lightning bolt (Notes from Poland, October 2020). In addition to the red lightning bolt, slogans such as To Jest Wojna (“this is war”), Piekło Kobiet (“hell of women”) or Wypierdalać (a vulgar word roughly equivalent in meaning to “fuck off”) can be seen in the protests (The Euroculturer, 2020).

Photo by Zuza Gałczyńska on Unsplash

Umbrellas, particularly black umbrellas, and coat hangers are also being used as symbols in the protests. Coat hangers are an international symbol used in protests against anti-abortion laws, as they symbolise the use of coat hangers in self-induced abortions. In protests which took place in Wrocław, protestors covered the gate of the palace of the Archbishop with coat hangers to show the danger to women posed by the view of the Polish Catholic Church against abortions. Umbrellas became a symbol of pro-choice protests due to mass protests in Poland in 2016, when many umbrellas were used due to the protests taking place on rainy days. While those protests prevented the Polish government from adopting stricter abortion restrictions in 2016, protesters said that they would not close their umbrellas, meaning that they were not going anywhere while restrictive anti-abortion laws remain a threat, and they have used umbrellas as a protest symbol in subsequent protests against anti-abortion laws (Notes from Poland, October 2020).

After two weeks of mass protests, which have brought hundreds thousands of people out onto the streets of Polish cities, a government official announced that the Polish government has decided to delay the publication and implementation of the ruling banning abortions in the case of foetal defects and is now taking time to debate the ruling. The Polish prime minister, Morawiecki, has requested talks with the protestors and the opposition in order to find a solution, but women’s rights activists are sceptical of such talks and plan to continue protests (The Guardian, 2020).

Photo by Silar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fight against the anti-abortion ruling is part of a wider battle to protect the basic human rights of women, LGBT+ people and other minority groups, which are being eroded by the right-wing Polish government. Now, even those who are not directly affected by the erosion of women’s rights are also becoming involved in the protest, such as miners and farmers, and protests are taking place all across the country, in rural areas as well as in cities. If progress can be achieved in regard to this ruling and the Polish government do decide not to implement the ruling as law after a period of debate, there would be a stronger sense of hope for Poles to continue in the fight for better human rights for women, LGBT+ people and other minorities (Heroine, 2020). Indeed, Strajk Kobiet has revealed demands such as a return to the rule of law, the creation of a “secular state”, in which policies are not influenced by the Catholic Church, and an improvement in LGBT+ rights (Notes from Poland, November 2020).


Links to resources:

Admin. (October 29, 2020). Polish abortion protests shake Catholic Church. The Finance Info.

Associated Press in Warsaw (November 3, 2020). Poland delays abortion ban amid nationwide protests. The Guardian.

Castro, L. (October 27, 2020). “Piekło Kobiet”: What is happening in Poland? The Euroculturer.

Rychlíková, A. (November 11, 2020). Lidská práva jsou víc než koronavirus. Polské protesty mohou změnit nejen potratový zákon. (Heroine).

Wądołowska, A. (October 30, 2020). The symbols of Poland’s abortion protests explained. Notes from Poland.