Proposed ban would criminalise all terminations with women punishable by up to five years in prison.
Thousands of women are expected to go on strike across Poland in protest against a new law that would effectively ban abortion.
Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with terminations legally permitted only when the life of the foetus is under threat, when there is a grave threat to the health of the mother, and in the instance that the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
Were the proposed ban to be enacted, all terminations would be criminalised, with women punishable with up to five years in prison. Doctors found to have assisted with a termination would also be liable for prosecution and a prison term.
Critics say that would mean that even a woman who suffers a miscarriage could be under criminal suspicion, and that doctors might be put off conducting even routine procedures on pregnant women for fear of being accused of facilitating a termination.
Although a ban has received public support from elements of the Catholic church and Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS), neither initiated the proposals. They were drafted by hardline conservative advocacy group Ordo Iuris and submitted by the Stop Abortion coalition as a “citizens’ initiative” – a petition considered by parliament once it has received more than 100,000 signatures.
When on 23 September the Polish parliament voted for Stop Abortion’s proposals to be scrutinised by a parliamentary committee, pro-choice activists responded by calling a nationwide strike, or “national absence campaign”, by women, encouraging them to take a day off work and domestic tasks and gather for meetings or demonstrations, to donate blood or do charity work.
Many Polish women say they are sick of deals being cut over their fundamental reproductive and human rights, which they argue threaten both their safety and their dignity.
“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,” said Magda Staroszczyk, a strike co-ordinator. “This is a chance for us to be seen, and to be heard.”
The protest was inspired by an all-out strike more than 40 years ago by the women of Iceland, when 90% of women refused to work, cook, or look after their children for a day in October 1975.
Organisers cite an assault on women’s reproductive rights that goes beyond the measures contained in Stop Abortion’s proposed ban. A separate, PiS-sponsored bill restricting IVF (in vitro fertilisation), which would make it illegal to freeze embryos and allow women to fertilise only one embryo at a time, was also passed to the parliamentary committee stage in September.
The Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements, with the support of an MP from a rightwing parliamentary faction associated with Law and Justice, has called for a total ban of the morning-after pill. Under the proposals, anyone caught selling or distributing emergency contraception could be imprisoned for up to two years.
But it is the perceived cruelty of the proposed abortion ban that has united what has long been a relatively marginal feminist movement with many self-identified Roman Catholics and those who support the existing “compromise” – shorthand for the legislation passed in 1993 that regulates abortion to this day.
“One thing that I think really radicalised women is when they understood that this could lead to incarceration for women who had miscarriages,” says Agnieszka Graff, a commentator, activist, and author of World without Women: Gender in Polish Public Life.
According to a poll for Newsweek Polska, 74% of Poles support the retention of the existing legislation, while research by polling company Ipsos indicates 50% of Poles support the strike, with 15% saying they would like to take part. A further 15% expressed opposition.
“My mother is very Catholic, goes to church every Sunday, and is against abortion just because you might not want the child,” says Małgorzata Łodyga, a junior doctor who supports the strike. “But she is against this law, because if a woman is raped, she will be treated worse than the man who raped her.”
The intensity of the so-called “black protests” has proved tricky for Law and Justice, which presents itself as the guardian of traditional values in a country beset by liberal notions of multiculturalism, relaxed social mores and restrictive political correctness, but which remains mindful of the risks of alienating mainstream public opinion.
The party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has suggested that the government might accept a compromise whereby terminations carried out because of a congenital disorder of the foetus would be banned, but terminations of pregnancies as a result of rape or incest would still be permitted.