Poland's proposed ban on abortion part of broader push to turn back history

In Poland, the law on abortions is so strict that there were only 1,000 legal terminations last year, and now, the government is considering making it even stricter.

Recent attempt to curb reproductive rights fits with conservative, autocratic agenda of ruling party

Polish women in Warsaw shout slogans during the 'Black Monday' strike to protest a legislative proposal for a total ban on abortion. Massive protests were held in the rain in the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw and elsewhere across the largely Catholic nation. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

In Poland, a country of almost 39 million people, the law on abortions is so strict that there were only 1,000 legal terminations last year. And now, the government is considering making it even stricter.

The governing Law and Justice party, led by conservative politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is considering a bill that would outlaw all abortions. All of them.

Millions of women are furious. They want the existing law relaxed, or at the very least, untouched. They've held large demonstrations — taking to the streets by the thousands on Monday in a national strike to protest the total ban on abortion.

The women on the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw and elsewhere across the largely Catholic nation wore black in symbolic mourning for the loss of their reproductive rights. 

We don't want this barbarous law. It takes away the right of a woman to choose- Kinga Jurga, Polish demonstrator

"As a Polish woman, I don't feel secure," Dominka Slowik said.  

Women like Slowik believe the move would be more than a change of law. They see it as a part of a broad government offensive to turn back history to a pre-war autocratic Poland, where the Catholic Church and the state were close allies, and birth control and abortion were all-but non-existent.

Under the proposed law, the three reasons that are currently grounds for abortion in Poland — a severely damaged fetus, danger to the mother's health and conception after incest or rape — would no longer apply. Abortion would be a criminal offence with a prison term for a woman and her doctor.  

A sea of thousands is shown during the 'Black Monday' strike in Warsaw. A survey showed 74 per cent of Poles oppose a change in the abortion law. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

"We don't want this barbarous law," Kinga Jurga, 32, said at a demonstration on Oct. 1 in Warsaw. "It takes away the right of a woman to choose."

The proposed abortion ban was initiated by a citizens petition that gathered more than 450,000 signatures led by the hardline advocacy group Stop Abortion. Under Polish law, a citizens group can launch a legislative initiative by collecting at least 100,000 signatures.

The Stop Abortion initiative was adopted in principle by a large majority in parliament on Sept. 23 and is now being studied by a parliamentary committee. A separate initiative put forth by a group called Save Women that sought to expand the exemptions in the current abortion law and gathered more than 200,000 signatures was defeated.

Tens of thousands of Polish women and men took part in the strike Monday. That meant, for many, not going to work and, for others, not doing housework. Then there were the marches, which spilled over to other European capitals. 

Thousands protest in Poland against new abortion ban

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Featured VideoNew proposed legislation prohibits all abortions for any reason

Backing of Catholic Church

In considering the ban, the government has the firm backing of the Catholic Church, which now rejects the compromise it accepted in 1993 when the current restrictive abortion regime was adopted.

It ignores polls showing that 74 per cent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the present law and don't want it changed. And it dismisses estimates that suggest that more than 100,000 women annually get an illegal abortion in Poland or go to neighbouring countries for terminations. 

Contraception is available but, because of the opposition of the Catholic Church, both contraceptives and sex education have been discouraged and limited in parts of the country.

This struggle has split Poland in two.

The Law and Justice party has governed since elections in October 2015, when it won 37.5 per cent of the vote and the largest number of seats.

The leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski has emasculated the country's constitutional court and assumed control of public broadcasting. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

The party is the creature of the brothers Kaczynski, Jaroslaw and his twin brother Lech, who founded the conservative populist party in 2001. Five years later, they were, respectively, prime minister and president of Poland.

Their party lost power in 2007, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his job. His brother died in 2010 in a plane crash en route to Smolensk, Russia, to commemorate the 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Poles by Soviet secret police.

Powerful conservative party leader

The surviving Kaczynski carried on and returned to power, but not to office, in 2015. Others in his party hold the posts of president and prime minister but he, as party leader, holds real power. All in the government bow before "the chairman."

And with real power, he set out, not so much to create a new Poland as to re-create an old Poland.

The[Law and Justice]party wants to create a new sort of citizen — a nationalist-patriot type — who is ready to renounce his or her civil liberties.- Jaroslaw Kurski, editor in chief of opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza

He began by emasculating the country's highest tribunal, the constitutional court. The government simply disregarded its verdicts, refusing to publish them in the official gazette. It served notice that all of the court's independent judges, including the chief justice, will be replaced with loyal government lackeys when their terms expire.

Next came the media. A new law transferred the running of public television and radio from an independent commission to a government minister. Within three months of taking office, the new government had named its own choice for boss: Jacek Kurski.

Government takes over public broadcasting

The new boss of public television and radio quickly found himself on a public collision course with his own brother, Jaroslaw Kurski, the editor in chief of the biggest opposition newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

When Jacek agreed to run the government propaganda arm, with almost no time given to opposition views, he and his brother stopped talking to each other.

Kaczynski's government appointed Jacek Kurski, above, as the head of state television. He was later fired, although not before falling out with his brother, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. (Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

"The Law and Justice party questions the very foundation of liberal democracy which is the reciprocal limitation of power," said Jaroslaw Kurski. "The party wants to create a new sort of citizen — a nationalist-patriot type — who is ready to renounce his or her civil liberties."

The emphasis on nationalist patriotism reaches back into history. The government has put a law on the books banning the use of the phrase "Polish death camps." These were the camps, such as Auschwitz or Treblinka, set up in Poland to exterminate European Jews, as well as others, by the Nazis in the Second World War.

Rewriting history

The new government insists that Poles didn't kill Jews, only German Nazis did.  Anyone who uses the banned phrase may be liable to prosecution.

A Polish historian, Jan Gross, who has written about the killing of Jews in Poland by Poles, notably in his book Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne — the story of a massacre in 1941 in which several hundred Jews were murdered by fellow townspeople — has been denounced by this government. It wants to try him for libel and to strip him of the Polish Order of Merit.

Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo says women should stop protesting and get used to the new law outlawing all abortions. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

All of this, particularly the attacks on the constitutional court and the takeover of public broadcasting, have been severely criticized by the leaders of the European Union. Ironically, the new public broadcasting boss, Jacek Kurski, will soon lose his job. The ratings of the public channels have dropped sharply — propaganda isn't necessarily great entertainment. But tight government control will remain.

The European Parliament has announced a special debate on the status of women in Poland as the controversy over the new anti-abortion law swirls.

The government is unrepentant. It is a big player in Europe and a pugnacious one. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo calls the European Parliament out of step. She says the EU must be modified to come more in line with Poland's view of the world.

And the women of Poland, in her view, should stop protesting and accept the new national reality.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.