Warsaw, Poland – On 22 October, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal voted through a proposal to further restrict an already strict law on abortion. The ruling to ban the abortion of severe and irreversibly impaired fetuses is as close to a de facto ban on abortion as the country can get, seeing as 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland today are conducted for this very reason.
Pro-life activists and conservative parliamentarians — eagerly backed by the Polish Catholic Church — have made several previous attempts at banning abortion. However, going through the Constitutional Tribunal in the midst of a world-wide pandemic seems to have backfired in ways that neither the ruling party, PiS, nor the Church could have imagined. With almost half a million people gathering in over 400 different cities to protest on 28 October, one can ask whether this latest effort to infringe on women’s bodies has finally caused Polish society to snap.
Famous for its firm stance against meddling with the creation of life, most people are probably aware that the Catholic Church is against abortion. As the only Polish institution to survive over two centuries of division and occupation, the Catholic Church has held an important position in Polish imagination and national identity. This goes beyond being a place of worship, from preserving Polish language and identity between 1772 and 1918, when Poland was partitioned between Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, to a place free from externally-imposed ideology during the communist era between 1947 and 1989.
Abortion is a delicate question in Poland. In contrast to the wishes of the Church, it was legal and free during communism, but these freedoms disintegrated shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1990, politicians called for a ban on abortion, which was backed by the Catholic Church, and by 1993 a new law was passed to limit the terminating of pregnancies only in cases of rape or incest and if the fetus was fetally impaired. This law has had widespread support for the last 27 years.
Blurring the line
While a certain part of Polish identity appears to be strongly connected to being Catholic, a majority of Poles hold the belief that the Church and the state should remain separate. It is, however, an open secret that the Catholic Church is an important political player in Poland and that whoever holds the power in parliament depends on its support.
Since 2015 Poland has been governed by a conservative and increasingly populist government. Working hard to please its conservative constituency, along with the Church and a number of conservative lobbyists and international pro-life organizations, the line between politics and religion seems to have been blurred in ways that for the last five years have resulted in society pushing back.
In 2016, these pro-life organizations together with a group of parliamentarians and supported by the Church, almost managed to push through a near total ban on abortion. In the end, this failed as mass protests broke out all over Poland. With women dressed in black flooding the streets, these protests became known as the #blackprotests. Not only protesting further restrictions on women’s bodies and rights, they also objected to the Church’s role in promoting the law, and perceived it as overstepping a boundary between religion and politics – a boundary that should not be crossed.
According to Anna Gryzmala-Busse, a professor at Stanford University who researches Church-state relations in Eastern Europe, blurring the lines between politics and religion is something that will impact negatively on both the ruling party, PiS, and the Catholic Church in the long run.
Four years after the #blackprotests, this seems to ring particularly true. This time the protests have not only gathered women, but also their fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends. Additionally the protesters have enjoyed the support of private business owners and companies. Even factions of groups who traditionally belong to PiS constituencies — coal miners’ unions, taxi drivers and farmers along with bikers and football fans — have come out in support for the protesters.
While many still hold the view that abortion should be restricted along the lines of the existing law, the coming together of these different groups holds strong symbolic value for a society that is uniting against those in power. In the first week of November, support for PiS dropped by more than 10 percent, from 38 percent at the end of October to 26 percent in November. This marked the lowest support since 2015.
What’s more, in an unprecedented maneuver, protesters confronted the clergy by protesting outside of churches and disrupting the Sunday service on 25 October, even shouting vulgarisms and profanities at the priests. This was unheard of in Poland and indicates a change in perception of the Church and the role it should play in society.
A heartless law on abortion
To get a better view of current events, I reached out to Professor Gryzmala-Busse along with a couple of protesters to understand if what we see happening now is a breach of people’s confidence in the current government — and, more importantly, in the Church.
When I ask professor Grzymala-Busse if she thinks that this latest attempt at restricting abortion rights in Poland has finally crossed a line, she answers that what we see now might be a tipping point. “People are so sick and tired of the Church’s influence — but more importantly this is such a heartless law.” She continues by explaining that even though it is legal to abort fetuses with grave fetal defects, it is still very difficult to obtain an abortion under this circumstance. “You basically have to have several doctors agree that whatever the fetus has is incompatible with life and so it is seen as a totally inhumane policy. This isn’t about getting rid of fetuses with Down’s syndrome, this is about aborting fetuses that are so compromised that they cannot survive and it is seen as doubly inhumane because you are forcing these newborns to suffer, and you are forcing the mothers to carry them to full term.”
Trying to get a better understanding of why both PiS and the Church keep pushing this question, knowing that it will likely cause protests, she explains to me that both PiS and the Church see mutual benefits in pushing for stricter legislation. “It confirms their conservative intentions, and sends a signal about how conservative and committed they are to traditional notions of politics and religion.” At the same time, she explains, “PiS is very well aware of how sensitive the question is, which is why they chose to take it through the courts this time. They were hoping to avoid the kind of political backlash they are now faced with.”
A political crisis
The sudden urge to restrict abortion rights might seem like a strange priority in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, which after a relatively calm summer has picked up speed again. In the weeks leading up to 22 October however, the Polish government was faced with a political crisis that threatened to overthrow the ruling coalition headed by PiS. One of the main reasons behind this development was the passing of a controversial law protecting animal rights, which would ban raising animals for fur. Being an important export industry, this greatly upset Polish farmers — an important constituency that traditionally votes for PiS.
According to Gryzmala-Busse, they viewed Jarosław Kaczyński, head of PiS and Poland’s de facto leader as getting soft. Someone seems to have reasoned that imposing further restriction on abortion would divert attention from the governmental crisis. Raising the question of abortion could calm the conservative constituency and PiS political supporters, who have not forgotten that the government already backed away from the proposed ban on abortion in 2016.
As we know by now, this strategy had the opposite effect. Both because it resulted in people flooding the streets in what is believed to be the biggest protests in Poland since 1989, but also because it has resulted in more political chaos and open fractures within PiS and the government, as well as within the Church.
When I talk to Ewa Wróbel, a protester from Kraków currently residing in Wrocław, she tells me about how both cities have seen massive protests since 22 October but that the protests actually started even before that. When it was first announced that abortion would be handled by the Constitutional Tribunal, representatives from Razem, Poland’s left-wing political party, who played an important role in organizing the 2016 protests, started encouraging women to protest, which they did, blocking streets with their cars. It took more time for the mainstream to catch on.
“After the announcement was made, we were all thinking about what we could do. In previous years there have been huge protests, but now we’re in the midst of a pandemic and it is illegal to gather in big groups. There was this huge discussion online. My friends and I thought that there was nothing to be done, but then the All-Poland Women’s Strike Committee decided to organize an illegal protest. It went badly. There were fights and gas involved — and then something broke. People started saying that they didn’t care if it was illegal, that they could not fight us all if we went out together.”
Following the patterns of previous protests, it was mostly women who first took to the streets. One of the biggest changes that Ewa noticed, however, was the presence of teenagers and people in their early twenties. “You could see that they were first-time activists, that they had never been on the streets before.” This positively surprised her. “For the last few years I felt so depressed to see that more young people are conservative. I’ve had this feeling that we’re moving away from Western society intellectually. But we are part of the EU and the Western world. So I’m positively shocked to see all these young people stand up, not only online, but they are standing up for their rights.”
Except for the initial clashes with police, protests have been peaceful. Also, before the big protest on Friday 30 in Warsaw, which was called for by the All-Poland Women’s Strike Committee, most protests were spontaneous. “People were walking the streets with banners saying things like “If the government and country won’t support my sister, I will stand up for her.” According to Ewa, the feeling of unity and of an emerging sisterhood has been really striking.
“I went to my yoga class the other day and all of the women there were talking about it. There was this feeling that we are all in this together. I have never talked to these women before but now there was a huge discussion before the class. It’s also present on the streets. While on my bike, I met an old woman who smiled and waved. Even if this does not change the government, it is an awakening. There is a feeling of women’s solidarity. It is terrible and great at the same time.”
It seems women have found a more concise political voice with these latest protests, a sentiment that is echoed by Magda Kowalska, another protester to whom I talked while following the unfolding events.
“People are less afraid now to speak their minds; women, especially, have found their voices. Tradition and religion might be a big part of our culture, but we’re realising we don’t need to be held hostage by them. I believe there is potential for a big shift in Polish politics too, provided that we remain united.”
Counter reactions on Poland’s abortion law
The massive reaction by civil society caused Jarosław Kaczyński to call on people to defend the churches, a fact that, according to Ewa’s account, resulted in some disturbances of the otherwise peaceful protests, as a number of right-wing nationalists formed circles around churches to defend them from protesters. When no protesters came, they took to defending the churches on the streets instead.
In the passing weeks, a number of politicians and Church officials have raised their voices, sometimes trying to smooth things over, other times adding fuel to the fire. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has called for talks between protesters and MPs of the opposition, suggesting a solution in which it would still be allowed to terminate pregnancies of fetally-impaired fetuses, but not of babies with Down’s syndrome. On a similar note, President Andrzej Duda, with his daughter and wife, stated that while they are Catholic and believe that abortion is wrong, women should have the right to decide over their bodies, calling for a similar solution to that of Morawiecki.
On the opposing side, Poland’s recently-appointed and highly-criticized minister of Education, Przemysław Czarnek, has threatened to withdraw funding from universities who support the protests. Simultaneously, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki has said that it is the Church’s duty to accept the court’s decision that abortion due to a birth defect is unconstitutional, because “the Church cannot cease to defend life, nor can she fail to proclaim that every human being must be protected from conception until natural death.”
In response, the government has delayed posting the court’s decision, a necessary step to bring the law into force. Kaja Godek, one of the country’s most prominent anti-abortion activists, has stated that this delay is resulting in the continuing murder of children suspected of disease or disability, and that this is a reason for not voting for PiS in the next elections.
The Church under threat?
While the initial protests directly targeted both churches and priests, the All-Poland Women’s Strike Committee (who initially called for people to protest at the Sunday mass on 25 October) in a press briefing on 30 October discouraged further attacks from the Church. This was in order to avoid escalating the clashes with the self-proclaimed “Church defenders” — yet a truly striking feature of society’s pushback lies in how the Church is being framed as one of the main culprits.
Interestingly, in 2018, Ireland, another Catholic country which for centuries has boasted of its strong historical and national connection to the Catholic Church, made a historic u-turn on abortion rights, changing the legislation from a total ban to legalization. When I ask professor Grzymala-Busse if she thinks that Poland will follow a similar pattern of development in the near future, she replies that this is a plausible scenario.
“What happened in Ireland was basically the discovery that the Church had been in charge of orphanages and education and health care and you know, single mother’s homes. For decades it was entrusted with the most vulnerable members of society. And in the 1990s there was a whole bunch of sexual abuse scandals that emerged, which made it clear that the Church was not to be trusted and that it did not represent the nation and so, after that you had the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, you had the abortion referendum in 2018, things changed very quickly. I think something similar might be happening in Poland, this might be a tipping point of sorts, because the fact that people are actually confronting the Church itself is unprecedented. So I think that there might be a similar sense that the Church and PiS have essentially gone too far.”
When I ask both Ewa and Magda about their view on the future, both agree that one of the immediate threats is internal division among protesters. Despite unholy alliances between groups who often belong to opposite political spectrums, “Poland has not changed overnight” as Ewa puts it “and it’s still three years until the next election. Right-wing politicians and organizations will continue to push for more, but we are organized and young people are also getting organized. There will be more manifestations, people will turn against it. In the long run, there will be positive changes. That is what keeps me alive and in this country.”
With the government displaying obvious indecisiveness over how to proceed by pushing back on publishing the court’s decision, most protesters seemed to have calmed down against a tentative promise of amending the court’s decision so that it comes close to the previous law.
The future looks bright
Times are changing however. While the current government will probably be able to stay in power until the 2023 election, the reality is that the influence of the Catholic Church has been eroding for some time — in all likelihood sped up by a massive sex abuse scandal in 2019, and reoccurring efforts to restrict abortion. A Pew study from 2018 shows that among 102 countries examined, Poland had the largest inter-generational gap in church attendance. According to another poll from 2019 41 percent of young people polled do not trust the Church “at all,” and between 2018 and 2019, society’s level of trust for the Church fell over 13 percent, to 39.5 percent.
With the generations who lived through war and occupation — who struggled to preserve their identity and started rebuilding a new nation 30 years ago — now wittering away, a new and powerful political constituency is on the rise. In the 2023 election, young adults, who were born after Poland’s acceptance into the European Union, will cast their votes for the first time. Together with the millennials, they have grown up in a digitalized global world in which occupation and wars for the first time in centuries represent the memories of generations past. For them, the Catholic Church no longer represents the glue that holds a suppressed group of people together.
A chiropractor once told me that acute back pain seldom occurs as a consequence of sudden movements or a fall. Instead it is continuous small abrasions over a longer period of time that tears at your body until it reaches a point of tension that will make it snap. If there is one thing that the last few weeks of protests have exposed, it is a continuously expanding tear between people, politicians and the Church in Polish society. Eventually something will break.