Since 22nd October, women and pro-choice activists in Poland have been thronging the streets and leading protests against a recent court ruling that puts into effect a near-total ban on abortion. These protestors have been seen carrying banners and placards expressing their disappointment over the legislation and bearing a red lightning bolt that has, for long, been a symbol of pro-choice protests in the country. Undeterred by the crackdown of the riot police, these protestors have been leading what looks like one of the most major and widespread protests in Poland.
What is the furore all about?
The protests started soon after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that an existing law that grants abortion rights in case of fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional, sparking an uproar from women and pro-choice activists. The President of the Tribunal, Julia Przylebska, remarked that permitting abortion of malfunctioned fetuses legalized “eugenic practices” and that this decision was in congruence with the right to life enshrined in the Polish Constitution, as allowing abortion on grounds of a fetal malfunction is a “directly forbidden form of discrimination”.
However, this is being seen as a dangerous decision because: Until the legislation, the abortion law in Poland allowed abortions in case of rape, incest, fetal malfunctions, or if there was a threat to the mother’s life. Poland records less than 2,000 legal abortions, the majority of which are due to fetal deformities, according to a New York Times report. Abortions due to rape, incest, or where there is a threat to the mother account for only 2% of the total abortions. Thus, the court ruling practically outlaws abortion.
Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union since the Law and Justice Party-led government has left no stone unturned in quashing the 1993 abortion laws. The restrained access to abortion has led to Polish women either going abroad or opting for dangerous illegal abortions. Some of them even end up giving birth to children with serious and fatal diseases. Activists feel that, following the contentious decision, the number of women settling for such dangerous alternatives would only surge.
Response to the decision
The debatable decision has invited criticism and fiery attacks. Critics accused the Tribunal of pandering to the ruling regime, a pattern that has been observed quite frequently. According to a New York Times report, 11 out of the 12 judges in the Tribunal were appointed by the ruling party. Apart from the protestors, The Council of Europe immediately condemned the ruling as did international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International. Amnesty, Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch, in a collective statement, chided the government for rolling back reproductive rights and undermining the judiciary and rule of law in Poland. There were also protests staged by the left-liberal Opposition against the dangerous ruling, which irked many within the government and right-wing outfits.
Why are these protests different?
Although pro-choice protests are not an uncommon occurrence in Poland, the 2020 protests witnessed an unprecedented wave of aggression. For the first time, the church became a target spot for the protestors. It is essential to note that Poland is a staunchly Catholic country and there exists a close correspondence between the ruling conservative PiS and the Catholic Church. Besides sit-down protests and holding up banners saying ‘You have blood on your hands’ and ‘It’s a War’, the protestors have vandalized the walls of churches by drawing graffiti art using spray paints. There have been clashes between radical right-wing groups, who have been appealing to defend the Catholic Church and church buildings, and the protestors. What is apparent is that the right-wing groups are backed by the government as well as the police.
This article has been written by Ishaan Singh for The Paradigm
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