Warsaw, Poland – Aleksandra Sidoruk is a 21-year-old Polish student in her final year of an International Relations degree. She is also an activist, heavily involved in the pro-abortion protests taking place across Poland, from Gdansk in the far North, to Krakow in the South. Whilst most students are preoccupied with scarce library spaces and coursework deadlines, Aleksandra has joined thousands of citizens in daily protests throughout Poland against the government’s abortion ruling at the end of last year.
In taking to the streets, Aleksandra is putting into practice the theory she studies in her degree. As a final year undergraduate myself, her double life as a student turned activist is both baffling as well as impressive; balancing these two full-time tasks, each immensely demanding both physically and mentally.
“It’s exhausting,” Aleksandra tells me when we spoke online, 15 days into the protests. “I can’t remember the last time I had an hour without any kind of work, because when we don’t have work connected with activism and protest, then I have classes and work for university”.
Whilst evidently drained, the red lightning bolt painted onto Aleksandra’s cheek, symbolic of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, conveyed the uncompromising determination of activists like herself, that has marked this movement and galvanized support across the world.
Frustrated though perseverant, she adds; “When you think of Poland you see a modern country in central Europe, a member of the European Union – having to protest this, is quite insane and ridiculous”.
Poland moves to restrict abortion laws: “This is war”
The protests began on 22 October, when the Polish constitutional court ruled abortions performed on the basis of foetus malformation, unconstitutional. The ruling will ban almost all terminations, as 98% of abortions currently carried out in Poland are in accordance with this clause of the 1993 Abortion Act.
Abortion regulations in Poland are already highly restrictive compared to the majority of other EU countries. However, under the new ruling, access will become even more limited. In accordance with the 1993 Abortion Act, terminations will only continue to be provided to women whose pregnancies pose a threat to their life or health, or to those who were the victims of rape, of which cases constitute only 2% of abortions performed. Aleksandra bluntly describes this as a “women’s hell”.
Determination to end this hell has seen demonstrations evolve into a full on battle against the Polish government, as thousands of unwavering protestors take to the streets to express discontent with their government. The chant “This is War” has become increasingly popular, as the movement seemingly develops and expands in its scope, surpassing its initial cause. Aleksandra believes the movement has evolved because protestors are seeking more than just abortion law reform, possibly even a more liberal future for Poland.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, professor and writer Agnieszka Graff also commented on the development of the demonstrations, describing them as series of protests against Poland’s right-wing, nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), with the abortion ruling triggering further mass unrest. Agnieszka, who organised a successful blockade in Warsaw at the beginning of the protests in October, was also very active in feminist movements in the 2000s. However, she noted that the current government is much less democratic and tolerant than it was in the early years of post-communism, which were characterized by feelings of optimism and freedom.
“It all started because of abortion, but now we realise there is so much more…”, says Aleksandra. The young activist hopes the movement will lead to the resignation of her government.
President Andrzej Duda, heavily backed by PiS, promised to strengthen the Polish state, built on “inviolable tradition” when he was re-elected in July 2020. However, as Aleksandra noted several times throughout our talk, “Duda does not have much power, the problem is with PiS”. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, its leader, is widely considered to be the country’s real power-broker, and the puppet master behind Duda.
“We need Kaczynski to stop ruling our country, because that is what he’s been doing, it’s not Morawiecki or Duda”.
Aleksandra spoke with particular resentment of Kaczynski, specifically of his association with the Catholic Church. According to Agnieszka Graff, young people, like Aleksandra, are protesting daily because of these ties between politicians and priests. The Church’s close affiliation with PiS, which has meant its pervasive influence over decision-making, has been thoroughly criticised by protestors.
“We are sick of this”
The separation of religion from state is among the list of postulates presented by the All-Poland Women’s Strike. The Church has had a vast influence over political processes in recent decades, which can be partly attributed to its involvement in the Solidarity movement movement in the 1980s. Solidarity had a big hand in bringing down the communist establishment in 1989, and since then the Church has retained a significant hold over government.
However, in today’s Poland, the Church no longer represents such a symbol of hope and progression for many Poles. Aleksandra describes herself as an atheist, and strongly believes that religion should have no place in the forming of legislation, or in the private sphere.
“I don’t have any respect for the Polish Church right now, because of what they are doing. They are simply destroying our lives”.
As her contemporary in many ways, the prospect of being denied access to abortion, contraception, and sex education, and to have this decision taken by a government that is strongly weighted towards the Church, is perplexing and frankly a little disturbing. I asked Aleksandra what the influence of the Church has meant for her personally, as a young woman living in Poland with limited birth control options.
“We need easy access to contraception, it is very hard to get, and doctors can say they will not give me pills because of their beliefs and their faith,” she answers. “This is outrageous.”
Her fear is not completely unfounded. In an infamous 2014 court case, a Polish woman carrying a foetus with a fatal impairment, was unable to have an abortion, even though she was legally entitled to one. Her doctor had invoked the Conscience Clause, which allows the refusal of abortions, contraceptives, or any other medical assistance that doctors deem incompatible with their personal beliefs. The woman was eventually forced to give birth and the baby died seven days later. The Conscience Clause is an example of why Aleksandra, and thousands of other protestors, will not accept a return to the old abortion regulations, which failed this woman six years ago.
“We want the liberalisation of abortion – not [to go] back to the deal that was before”.
This deal, known as the abortion compromise, was brokered between the government and the Church in 1990s Poland and culminated in the 1993 Abortion Act. The Act’s strict nature permitted only 1,076 legal abortion operations in Poland in 2018. When compared to the Czech Republic for example, which has a population a third of the size of Poland’s, yet performed 18,298 legal abortions in 2018, it is clear just how stringent Polish regulations are.
Aleksandra believes that PiS, with its Church affiliations and severely conservative social values, should be replaced, and fundamental changes must happen.
“[The protests] now involve more demands and more issues that we have struggled with throughout the years of this government”.
The abortion debate rages on: “I think, I feel, I decide”
Demonstrations continued on 30 October, making history as the largest in scale against PiS, since it took office five years ago. 100,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw, chanting; “I think, I feel, I decide”; reiterating that a reversal of the abortion ruling will not suffice for the protestors. Many activists, like Aleksandra, had protested daily in the 8 days since the court ruling. Another young woman reportedly stated that she had “done nothing for the last six days except protest”.
Aleksandra, also experiencing the personal costs of daily activism, said having friends beside her, who are regularly participating in the protests, makes things easier and the burden less cumbersome. Similarly, Agnieszka Graff noted the importance of the shared experience, and the friendships she has witnessed between her students in such a difficult time, describing the “explosion of pure emotion” amongst them.
Such support can also be seen in the diversification within the movement. Not only women, but also men, LGBTI+, and many other members of society have shown solidarity with protestors like Aleksandra.
“There is a lot of support from all groups, and everyone who feels like they need to stand up for human rights, because that’s what it is.”
Poland abortion ruling: “We’ve had enough”
Members of the Polish LGBTI+ community in particular have suffered various infringements on their human rights in recent years. Having endured Duda’s anti LGBTI+ rhetoric, the implementation of “LGBT-free zones”, and the prime minister’s refusal to even acknowledge the existence of homophobia; this community stands with the women of this movement, united by the necessity of protecting all rights under threat. The chant, “we’ve had enough”, has featured in multiple protests across Poland since the ruling several weeks ago. It articulates the far-reaching discontent which has crossed all social lines, as well as the sense of finality that I understood from Aleksandra throughout the interview.
In Poland and elsewhere, “abortion is a human right and it’s now or never”, she says.
Aleksandra’s confidence in the future of this movement is in part due to the All-Poland Women’s Strike, and their newly established Consultative Council. Its main purpose, as Aleksandra explained, is to bring together experts and specialists to create some formal body which will aggregate the demands of protestors. These individuals will collect, organise, and present the voices of the movement. The leader of All-Poland Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart, also described their objective to develop exit paths, and build effective infrastructure that will clean up the mess created by the current government.
“[All-Poland Women’s Strike] are trying to build something that will help us in the future”, said Aleksandra.
This Council could prove vital to the protests. Without this official body to translate the civil unrest into a formalised procedure, cite the list of postulates, and exchange dialogue with the government, the movement could eventually fade out. As a student of International Relations, Aleksandra is under no illusions about the reality of protesting in terms of its capacity to create lasting change.
“I will not change the world by protesting, it’s sad but it’s true, you have to have the tools and you have to have the institutions to change the world”.
As noted by Aleksandra, the protests have brought them this to this point, now it is time for All-Poland Women’s Strike to ensure change is legally affected.
In spite of the success so far, the young activist expressed some worries that momentum could be lost, with international attention diverted to the American election and of course, the pandemic.
“Keep talking about us, don’t let the topic die”, she says.
Momentum does not however seem to be showing any signs of abating. All-Poland Women’s Strike leader, Marta Lempart, explained in an interview for the New Yorker that it is no longer possible to use Facebook as an organizing tool, because the platform cannot cope with the number of people who are involved.
In spite of these concerns, Aleksandra stated with relative conviction: “I think this is going to end in us winning”.
Nearly five weeks have now passed since the initial ruling, and three since I spoke with Aleksandra. Although energy in the movement has not ceased, and the world still avidly follows the situation in Poland, a full resignation of Duda and PiS, which protestors like Alekansdra were hoping for, is looking increasingly doubtful.
At the end of the interview, I asked Aleksandra what message she wanted to give, as a young woman fighting for a basic right that many are fortunate enough to count on as a given right, including myself.
“Remember that democracy and human rights once given, can also be taken away, and Poland is the best example”.
The strength and resilience of women like Aleksandra in this movement is both remarkable as well as inspiring. While she protests and fights for women’s rights in Lodz, balancing her studies and adapting to the demanding lifestyle that is daily protest, her contemporaries like myself continue to study; fortunate enough to do so undisturbed and in comparative peace. At 21, in her final year of university, she is making immense sacrifices, unimaginable to other students elsewhere in the world.
“Be vocal and be brave. Fight for whatever is important for you”.
With the movement crossing all social lines, protestors have found support, as well as solidarity. The diversification of the movement, the chants, and the sheer number of people participating, have demonstrated widespread discontent for Duda, and more importantly, for Kaczynski and PiS. According to Aleksandra, Agnieszka Graff and Marta Lempart, abortion was the trigger that opened a Pandora’s box of resentment against the government, which has been brewing in Poland for years.
Article written by Georgie McCartney and originally published on Lossi 36, an official partner of Kafkadesk.