October 22 was a day of celebration for the right-wing nationalist PiS (Law and Justice), Poland’s ruling party. The country’s top court, the Constitutional Tribunal — its majority appointed by the party — ruled that abortions in the case of severe foetal disabilities were unconstitutional. As the vast majority of abortions in the country were done for that reason, the ruling was set to effectively ban the procedure. This was a major victory for the party and its close Catholic allies, paving the way for what had already been Europe’s strictest abortion — only allowing it in cases of rape, critical danger to the mother’s life, and foetal defects — to become even more restrictive. Going through the court instead of the legislature (where such a measure had been shot down in 2016), the country’s conservative leadership hoped that it would avoid the public outcry that the 2016 measure had prompted.
They were wrong.
Within days, massive protests erupted in the capital, Warsaw, and across the country. Dubbed the ‘Women’s Strike’ from its catalyzing force, tens of thousands flooded the streets, protesting against the ruling and the government’s assault on women’s reproductive rights. They found support in opposition politicians, who took up their symbols and chanted their slogans in the legislative chambers.
As October winded down, the protests showed no sign of abating. Despite deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński decrying the growing movement as a nefarious plot to destroy Poland, and far-right activists mobilizing to protect churches from the protesters, opinion polls showed that the majority supported the protests.
The surprising force and scale of the public outcry — which was steadily shifting from the abortion issue to something wider — forced the government on the back foot. On November 3, they delayed the implementation of the new restrictions for an indeterminate amount of time. The Prime Minister called for discussions with the opposition. President Andrzej Duda proposed a compromise, allowing abortion in the case of life-threatening birth defects — but this proposal has not found much support so far, neither from the right-wing nor from the protesters.
Not content with the temporary compromise, the protesters marched on. Though still very much driven by women and rooted in the issue of women’s rights, the protests morphed into an outburst of anti-government sentiment, pent up from years of highly nationalist and conservative governance. As of November 22, exactly a month after the Tribunal’s ruling, there are still daily protests in Warsaw and other major cities.
As the government realized that the unrest would not fizzle out on its own, it started pushing back harder. The police cracked down on the peaceful protesters with tear gas and arrests, detaining many with the support of the ruling party. The government also intensified its rhetoric, with Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski issuing an ominous warning, declaring that “there will be no revolution by force” in the country.
Both sides also sought international support. The protests received global recognition and praise: human rights experts from the UN, for example, condemned the Polish government for the anti-abortion ruling. Amnesty International reported on the “excessive force” the police employed against the protesters. International news outlets published favorable coverage of the protests, quoting from abortion rights campaigners or victims of the country’s heavy restrictions on the procedure.
The government mainly found support from the heads of like-minded states. On the same October day that the Tribunal made its ruling, Poland signed a global anti-abortion declaration. Its signatories include Hungary, the country’s staunch ally in religious conservatism and Euroscepticism, the United States, as well as many authoritarian nations around the world. Their support, even if implicitly, has given the Polish government legitimacy in what it sees as a righteous struggle against the murder of the unborn.
Raging for more than a month now, the crisis has become a war of attrition. The COVID-19 pandemic, an unavoidable front of every mass struggle in 2020, is being utilized by the government to whittle down the size of the protests and gain a moral upper hand. Fear of the pandemic was one of the original reasons PiS believed that the public outcry against the Tribunal ruling would be muted. Despite their miscalculation there, they are once again using it as an argument: the party leader accused opposition MPs of having “blood on [their] hands” for supporting the protests which have flaunted social distancing rules and, according to the government, contributed to the spread of the virus.
Although the ruling stands, the new law has stayed in limbo. While the push and pull of the protests continue, many questions remain. Can the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling be overturned? Will the right-wing, strongly Catholic government find a compromise with a discontent crowd that is increasingly calling for regime change? Or will the protests eventually die down, surrendering to social and epidemiological pressures?
One thing is for certain: Polish women have shown that they are not willing to be silenced and that their fury can catalyze mass movements.