Thousands of women are protesting across the nation against Poland’s latest abortion ruling, despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting public gatherings.
On October 22 the country's constitutional court ruled that ending the life of a deformed foetus is unconstitutional, an almost total ban allowing terminations only in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s health is at risk; a decision that was pressed without parliamentary debate or public consultation, and was widely criticised by rights groups inside and outside the country.
Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also condemned the judgement through social media, tweeting "Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical".
Demonstrators grouped together in main squares and outside churches and Law and Justice (PiS) party structures across the country, some carrying slogans such as "I wish I could abort my government". "Women are not respected in this country. No-one is listening to us" stated Magda, a protester in the northern city of Gdynia. Krystyna Kacpura, the head of Federation for Women and Family Planning stated "It's a disgrace from the Polish state towards half of the population, women. We'll never forget it".
Conflicts also arose in front of Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s (head of the governing PiS party) home, between police and protesters holding signs such as "This is war" and "You have blood on your hands".
Church services have been disrupted across Poland, with slogans such as "women's hell" and "unlimited abortions" written on church walls in Warsaw. Julia Miotk, a 26 year old protester stated, "I'm here today because it annoys me that in a secular country the church decides for me what rights I have, what I can do and what I'm not allowed to do".
The 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe foetal disabilities, on the basis of UN policies banning torture (and accounting for 98% of abortions in Poland) was legally challenged by parliamentarians from the PiS party last year, with most of the court judges listed by the same party. In 2016, an attempt to tighten the law regarding abortions was averted following challenges in parliament and protests by over 100,000 people. More than 1,000 legal abortions were recorded in Poland last year, with an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 Polish women a year seeking abortions abroad.
The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic stated that the day marked a "sad day for women's rights" and that "removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights".
The UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva responded to the ruling and protests stating, "We stand in solidarity with women in Poland and their quest for equality". "We call on the authorities to safeguard the rights of women and men who are protesting against this ruling," it continued, adding "this ruling will have devastating consequences for women and adolescent girls in need of such terminations, especially those who are socio-economically disadvantaged and migrant women in irregular situations who do not have the means to go abroad for abortion services’’.
Over the last five years, the Polish government controlled by the PiS party has been accused of weakening the rule of law, interfering with judiciary independence and media freedom; including refusing environmental activists to attend UN climate talks, rejecting bills to increase strengthen protection for marginalised groups and identities and harassing women’s rights, LGBT rights and migration groups.