By Lianne Kolirin
Protests have broken out in Poland after the country’s government enforced a constitutional decision that makes way for an almost total ban on abortion.
After weeks of mass protest, the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party initially delayed the implementation of the 22 October ruling by the constitutional court, which bans the termination of pregnancies with foetal defects. Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets to express their anger in the largest public demonstrations since the collapse of communism.
Activists have now returned to the streets of at least 40 Polish towns and cities after the ruling came into force at midnight on Wednesday.
Many of the protesters identify as Catholics, including Basia Balicka, 20, who is studying journalism and European diplomacy at the University of Wrocław. She told the Religion Media Centre that she has always been involved with the church, but strongly opposes the ban.
“My religion has always been very important to me yet at the same time it bothers me quite a lot that the Polish church is especially close to the ruling party and is often using this fact to make people feel as if they are less of a Christian just because they don’t support the government,” she said.
Through her campaigning she has called for more liberal and progressive approaches to social issues.
“I am strongly against the abortion ban, even — or especially — as a Christian woman because I know for a fact that my faith should not dictate people’s lives nor tell them what they’re obliged to do, especially when it comes to such delicate, important matters,” she said.
“I don’t want my religion to be used against people. And I don’t want the law to be based on it. I want the government to trust women as we’re smart, powerful, responsible and capable of making a choice. I’d rather have a church that helps single mothers, handicapped children, women who got raped, underaged girls etc — now that would be pro-life.”
The Constitutional Tribunal in Poland published its justification in a 154-page document, stating that “a child not yet born as a human being” is “a person who enjoys inherent and inalienable dignity . . . a subject having the right to life, and the legal system”.
Even before the legislation, access to abortion had declined in Poland as doctors have refused to carry them out on religious grounds, pushing women to go overseas. Terminations in the case of foetal abnormalities previously made up about 98 per cent of legal abortions in the country, of which there were only about 1,000 a year, according to the Notes From Poland news site.
Enforcement of the new rules mean abortion will be permitted only in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life or health is endangered. Doctors who proceed illegally could face prison.
The Law and Justice government won a second term in October, but with a reduced majority. Part of the party’s popularity lies in its projection as the defender of the traditional Polish identity and Christian values. Its right-wing stance also pits it against what it terms as the threat of “LGBT ideology”.
The church has a powerful influence on public life in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic. But not everyone is happy. A recent poll the Rzeczpospolita newspaper revealed that only nine per cent of young people (aged 18 to 29) had a positive view of the church.
October’s largely peaceful protests saw churches being vandalised and angry women confronting priests during mass. It represented a dramatic break with the past when questioning the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church would have been out of the question.
During the communist era, the church was instrumental in supporting pro-democracy dissidents, which earned it great respect, while the Pope St John Paul II is regarded as a hero.
Ula Grymula, who describes herself as a progressive church and human rights activist, said the issue had proved to be complex and divisive.
“Priests and Catholic journalists tend to use hate speech against protesters, sometimes even claiming that the red bolt symbol [the emblem of Strajk Kobiet, a women’s rights movement] is a sign of Satan and/or Hitler, but mostly denouncing them faith and claiming no Christian can support the protests.”
Commenting on the recent case of a Polish man in a vegetative state in Britain who was allowed to die, despite opposition from family back in Poland, Ms Grymula said: “The church seems to be focused solemnly on ‘protecting the life’, but only the life of foetuses and terminally ill people. More and more people think that religion-based laws should not be the basis of civil law, even in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition.”
She added: “We think that abortion should not be banned because we care not only about foetuses, but also about their mothers and their families.”
The timing of the ruling has been notable, given the coronavirus pandemic and newly released statistics that showed that deaths in 2020 spiked to a level unseen since the Second World War and births sharply declined. Both were attributed to the pandemic.
Michał Kłosowski, deputy editor-in-chief of Wszystko Co Najważniejsze, a magazine based in Warsaw and Paris, told the RMC: “For many, yesterday was the day of the victory of the civilisation of life, the end of the legal barbarism of the right to select and murder sick children in the country of St John Paul II. But I must say that for many others, those who are protesting against this opinion of the tribunal, it is a violation of human rights, as the representatives of the organization Strajk Kobiet called it.”
He added: “This ruling, the time of its publication and the breaking of the existing social consensus on abortion, was strictly politically motivated. Today Polish society seems to be split in half.”