Today, there are many women around the world living in fear. Not only because a pandemic is ravaging the world, but because many of their human rights and reproductive rights are being threatened. Essential to the human rights of life and dignity is a women’s right to abortion. Sadly, over the past decade numerous countries have limited the right to abortion, violating women’s human rights and endagering women worldwide. Poland is among these countries. However, the women of Poland are standing up against their government. As soon as it was announced that there would be further restrictions on abortion in Poland in 2020, women flocked to the streets. It is yet to be determined if these women will succeed in creating enough pressure to block these restrictions on abortion from being enacted, but it is clear that they won’t stop until they do. As women in Poland fight for their human and reproductive right to abortion amidst a pandemic, women worldwide must wonder if it will be their turn next.
The history of Poland’s abortion law is very complicated. The government has gone back and forth liberalizing and restricting Poland’s right to abortion throughout the decades; however, over the last few years the trend has been to make the law increasindly restrictive. In 1956 Poland’s first abortion law was created. This was a progrresive step by Poland to establish women’s reproductive rights and the right to abortion during communism, and even before the United States did so. From there the legislation changed as the government changed. When the government was more right-wing the law would be restricted. Then it would be loosened when the government became more liberal. Things took a drastic turn in 2011 when a law was proposed to ban abortion completely; furthermore, after it was struck down it was proposed and struck down again in 2016 after a series of protests. Each time the prospect of an overarching ban on abortion was proposed women protested to protect their right. Unfortunately they had to do so again in 2018.
Poland’s attempt to further restrict abortion with the bill proposed in 2018 forshadows the attack on abortion today in 2020. In 2018, a bill was proposed in parliament to “ban abortions in cases of foetal abnormality – one of the few exceptions allowed under the current law”. After the failed attempts in 2011 and 2016 to ban abortion completely, right-wing policymakers decided to utilize another approach to weaken women’s right to abortion. Again, the proposed abortion bill faced extreme backlash. Many leaders in the international community criticized Poland’s attempts to further restrict women’s right to abortion, including the commissioner of the Council of Europe, who declared that, “Preventing women from accessing safe and legal abortion care jeopardises their human rights”. The attempt of conservative policymakers to restrict abortion through a seemingly less conservative bill than those presented in 2011 and 2016 was seen by everyone for what it truly was. It was just another step in restricting abortion rights for the women of Poland until one day the right could be completely withdrawn. In response, women throughout the country banded together to protest the proposed bill in what was known as “the “Black Friday” protests”. Fortunately, the actions of many brave protesters stopped the passage of the bill. Human rights in Poland lived to see another day.
The attack on the human right to abortion escalated from 2011 to 2018. But, in 2020 the women of Poland were challenged again. A new abortion ban was declared this year by a “court ruling on October 22”. Essentially the court ruled “that abortion in case of catastrophic fetal indication would no longer be legal…. it leaves only two legal reasons for an abortion – threats to the mother’s life or if the woman has been raped”. In reality this court ruling is equivalent to an abortion ban. It leaves women no choice to exercise their right, and only guarantees that they have the option of abortion in the most dire circumstances. In addition this is just another step towards banning abortion entirely in the future. It took no time though for women to take to the streets to protest the ruling. Those witnessing the protests explain how “They are the largest demonstrations Poland has seen since the fall of communism more than 30 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of women across the country have defied a coronavirus ban on gatherings as well as the threat of prosecution to protest a court decision aiming to outlaw nearly all abortions”. These women and others who oppose the ruling and further restriction on the right to abortion are willing to put themselves at risk during a pandemic because they know without their actions Poland is one step closer to banning abortion completely. If the government succeeds in passing a bill to reflect the court’s decision then there is no doubt that an absolute abortion ban is coming in the near future. Currently, “Under pressure from protests, the government has postponed implementing the court ruling, but activists suspect this is just a delay tactic”. So far the actions of the protesters have been successful in staving off the attempts of the conservative government to deny women their right to choose.
The further limiting of women’s reproductive rights in Poland can be linked to the increasingly extreme actions of the Law and Justice Party, which are pushing Poland further towards illiberal democracy. The Law and Justice Party is a far-right party that came to power in 2015. Ever since the party’s rise to power Poland has been experiencing symptoms of democratic backsliding. It is parties like the Law and Justice Party that are becoming increasingly popular throughout the world and disrespecting individual rights and freedoms that characterize liberal democracy. Once the party realized it would be unable to pass an abortion ban after the failures of 2011, 2016, and 2018 it turned to the court, “which the party packed with loyalists shortly after taking power”. With no time to spare the court made its ruling further restricting the right to abortion. The Law and Justice Party is threatening the very foundation of liberal democracy and human rights in Poland. It has attacked the human right to abortion time and time again, and it seems like it is just the begining.
The threat of the new restrictions on the right to abortion were so great that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to risk their lives in a pandemic in order to stop it. The women of Poland recognize that these new restrictions are an affront on their human rights, reproductive rights, their dignity, and liberty. They recognize that when their government fails to protect their rights it is their responsibility to take action and protest. This recent attack on abortion illustrates the trend of abortion rights being rolled back in Poland as far-right policymakers gain power. When people choose not to respect women’s right to abortion they are deciding that they do not respect women’s human rights. They are deciding that the freedom, happiness, and dignity of women is of no consequence. Contemporary governments need to be empowering and respecting the rights of all people, and especially not taking away any rights during a global pandemic. If the abortion bill succeeds, there is no telling what rights and freedoms will come under fire next. Additionally, the restrictions on abortion in Poland and the US over the last few months possibly demonstrate that there is a larger trend in the human right to abortion being threatened worldwide.
There is no doubt that the women of Poland are taking every action possible in order to stop their right to abortion from being restricted further. Furthermore, there is no telling how long their protests for their rights will last, or if they will be able to convince the government to halt the attack on the right to abrtion like they did in the past. However, these events in Poland show that when our rights are threatened, when we are at our most vulnerable we need to speak out and fight back.