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The scenes from yesterday’s demonstrations in Poland are extraordinary. Thousands and thousands of people took part in an all-out strike to protest against a proposed plan to ban women from having abortions, demonstrating in 60 odd cities across the country. Women in several other European countries protested too, out of solidarity. If you can’t reason with lawmakers, you can bring the country to a standstill. And they did.
The abortion laws in Poland are not at all lenient at present, despite the fact that lawmakers are delusional if they think any woman would ever take the decision to have an abortion at all lightly. As it stands, terminations are only legally permitted if the life of the foetus is under threat, if there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. Tough luck if your pregnancy is accidental and you are in no position, be it mentally and/or physically to bring up a child. And yet, these already stringent laws are not enough for hardline Catholics, who are seeking to push forward an out and out ban. If such a ban were to be enforced, abortion would be entirely criminalised, and women could be punished with up to five years in prison. Doctors assisting with termination could also find themselves prosecuted and perhaps facing a prison sentence.
The only thing such a ban would achieve would be to put a woman’s life at risk, which, quite frankly, is sickening, not to mention perverse. Why fight to “save” a non-existent life if you’re going to lose one that is already there? Doctors are already placed in horrifying situations - as there are no guidelines for how close to death a woman must be to be considered eligible for being saved, doctors may decide to leave it as long as possible to avoid prosecution. “If I have a 32-week pregnant patient with pre-eclampsia, I have to wait for her and her child to start dying before I can take action,” said Professor Romauld Debski during a parliamentary debate in April. “If there is an ectopic pregnancy and bleeding, I can perform a termination. But if there is no bleeding – no immediate risk to life – I have to wait until she starts dying.”
The proposed ban has received support from Poland’s ruling party, the PiS, a right-wing party in very close alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, although the proposals were actually drafted by a conservative advocacy group, Ordo Iuris, and submitted by the Stop Abortion coalition as a “citizens’ initiative” – a petition to be considered by lawmakers once it has more than 100,000 signatures. This was looked at by Parliament on September 23, who passed it on to be scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.
Although 87 per cent of the Polish population identify as Catholic, it is nonetheless baffling how such a proposal garnered 100,000 signatures in the first place. Speaking to The Guardian, strike co-ordinator Magda Staroszczyk said, “A lot of women and girls in this country have felt that they don’t have any power, that they are not equal, that they don’t have the right to an opinion. This is a chance for us to be seen, and to be heard.” The organisers took inspiration from a 1975 women’s strike in Iceland, where 90 per cent of women refused to work, clean or care for their children to voice their anger at discrimination in the workplace. This lead to direct change, with a law guaranteeing equal rights for men and women coming in to place the following year.
Thousands of women, and many men, took to the streets across Poland wearing black and waving black flags, symbolising mourning for the loss of their reproductive rights. A poll by Ipsos showed that 50 per cent of Poles were in support of the strike, and 15 per cent expressed a desire to take part. Despite half the country, then, being supportive, a separate poll, for Newsweek Polska, found 74 per cent of people were in support of the existing so-called "compromise". Speaking to The Guardian, commentator and activist Agnieszka Graff said, “One thing that I think really radicalised women is when they understood that this could lead to incarceration for women who had miscarriages.”
Further proposals added fuel to the fire however. A separate bill, put forward by the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements, has also called for a ban of the morning-after pill. Anyone caught selling or distributing this form of emergency contraception could, under the proposals, face up to two year’s imprisonment. For a country that prides itself on being forward facing and liberal, despite the huge amount of support that still stands for the Catholic Church, these proposals are worrying. Still, in the 21st century, politicians are trying to control women’s bodies and what they do with them. After half a century of work to develop contraception and give women the freedom to choose, still they are coming up against obstacles fuelled predominantly by archaic religious dogma.
“Poland’s abortion law is already one of the most restrictive in Europe and these proposals are an all-out assault on women and girls and their right to make decisions about their own bodies,” said Kasia Staszewska, Director of Amnesty International UK’s Women’s Rights programme. “A woman who needs an abortion is not a criminal and decisions about her body and her health should never be placed in the hands of politicians.”
The scenes in Poland, which saw protestors brandishing signs and chanting “my body, my choice”, aren’t wholly new, sadly. On September 24th, thousands of people marched through Dublin and 20 other cities worldwide to protest against Ireland’s strict abortion laws. Protestors called for a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution that forbids abortion, which is currently only legal if the mother’s life is at risk.
Both protests make it clear – women, of all backgrounds and all ages, will continue fighting for the right to control their bodies until they have it. How those in support of the proposed ban can justify the potential death of a woman is mind-boggling. There is no doubt about it – they have complete disregard for human life, and complete disregard for the rights of women. How does that fit in with the so-called Catholic value of respecting the human person? I don’t think it does.