Poland: What next after the “Black Protest”?

Czarny Protest Brussels

It has been truly empowering to observe the recent mass-mobilization of Polish women protesting the proposed strengthening of current abortion regulations. I have never seen such an explosion of women’s resistance in my country, and what is more, the tremendous outpouring of international support.

Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets after a citizen’s initiative for a proposed total ban on abortion in the Polish parliament sparked nationwide protests. Over six million women went on strike dressed in black to mourn their reproductive rights on what has been dubbed "Black Monday". The unprecedented backlash forced the Polish parliament to reject the bill in what was hailed as a victory for the “Black Protest” movement.  Although we have prevented a total ban on abortion in Poland, it is definitely too early to open the champagne.

Abortion has been always a controversial issue in our society. The liberal abortion law introduced during the Soviet time was replaced by a much more restrictive legislation in 1993. This so-called “abortion compromise”, according to mainstream discourse, was actually a deal between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, and is still in place today.

One year ago, for the first time in Polish post-communist history, no left-wing or social-democratic party made it into parliament. But it is too simplistic to explain the current political and SRHR crisis in Poland through the prism of last year’s election. We should remember that the status of women’s rights across Central and Eastern Europe as a whole was affected by the transformation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, we cannot overlook the rise of illiberal democracy during the recent years in the region where Poland plays a strategic role.

Let’s briefly trace what has happened in Poland since the infamous parliamentary vote in October. The “Black Protest” reinforced the feminist movement in Poland and brought women’s issues back to the public’s attention. However, it is currently going through the usual internal conflict that is endemic to progressive, political movements, but it is unclear how it could impact on its further activities. At the same time, the Polish government continues to push its anti–sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) agenda.

Despite rejecting the bill on a total abortion ban, on November 4th, the new bill “For Life” was adopted. The bill states that women will receive a one-off allowance worth 4000 PLN (around 1000 EUR) for delivering a terminally ill or permanently damaged infant, although only if born alive.  Apart from that, the bill also includes pre-existing stipulations that have never worked in the past for various reasons, namely lack of funding or inefficient procedures. It is certainly a significant attempt to further restrict the current abortion law, explicitly in the case of severe birth defects.

I feel especially close to the issues related to mothers of disabled children. A few years ago, together with Alicja Palecka from the Jagiellonian University, I conducted some qualitative research on this topic. It was a very moving experience listening to how a child’s disability affects their identities and lives. We described it as “hyper motherhood” because of their struggle to secure everyday essentials and medical care to children, without institutional, and often, family support. I am devastated to see that these women are instrumentally used as “pawns” in a political game.  

And last but not least, on November 8th, the Polish Minister of Health announced that his department was finalising the work on limiting access to emergency contraception – to be sold by prescription only. 

This is just a glimpse of recent developments that should be viewed in a broader, political context. From an international perspective, the latest criticism of the Polish government came with the November report of the UN Human Rights Committee. The violation of the constitutional order, control over the national media, insufficient protection against discrimination in all areas and more were reported.

The “Black Protest” is a clear indication that women are taking their sexual and reproductive health into their own hands but given the current political situation it might prove very challenging. For now, the battle has been won but the fight for women’s rights continues.

by Helena Szczodry of EuroNGOs