Blood-red lightning bolts and black umbrellas, two of the major symbols of the ongoing protests against new abortion restrictions in Poland, have filled the country’s cities and towns since October. Sparked by a new court ruling, the protests have become an outlet for young people to express frustration with social conservatism and the influence of the Catholic Church in Polish society.
Surrounded by neighboring countries that have long since loosened restrictions, socially conservative Poland has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe. Abortion is currently permitted only in cases of rape or incest, when the mother’s health or life is in danger, or when there is a high chance of severe and irreversible fetal impairment. In late October, however, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled to throw out fetal abnormalities exception, which is the stated reason for more than 97 percent of Poland’s legal abortions.
“They’re punished twice because the child they were awaiting has turned out to be sick and may not survive, but they’re being forced to deliver. It’s emotional torture,” said German abortion charity volunteer Ula Bertin to Euronews.
The ruling has sparked a massive protest movement called “Women’s Strike,” which is estimated to be the largest in the country since the 1989 fall of communism. The protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people, and half a million people follow the movement’s official Facebook page. Buses and taxis have been seen in Warsaw, the Polish capital, carrying signs reading “We are with you, girls.”
In an apparent response to the protests, the government has indefinitely delayed the publication of the court’s ruling — a move that keeps the ruling from being legally enforced. But while the government appears to have acquiesced to some of the protesters’ demands, the chairman of the ruling far-right populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has called upon his supporters to “defend Poland, defend patriotism” and “defend Polish churches” in response to the protests.
The Polish debate over abortion is part of an ongoing battle between the country’s deep-rooted Catholic establishment and its communist history. Under communist rule in the 1960s and 1970s, abortion was legal by request, and women from other European countries often traveled to Poland to get abortions. Poland’s abortion policy shifted in the 1990s, when the Catholic Church tacitly pledged its support for the new, post-communist political guard in exchange for the government upholding traditional Catholic morality through policies like abortion restrictions.
The Vatican has also remained steadfast in its opposition to abortion. In spite of Pope Francis’ other liberalizations in the Church, such as his support for same-sex civil unions, he has made his distaste for abortion on the basis of fetal abnormalities clear, controversially asking in 2019, “Is it permissible to contract a hitman to solve a problem?”
But the inertia in Rome hasn’t stopped other Catholic countries from embracing change. Abortion became legal in the Republic of Ireland in 2019 after a referendum, and Northern Ireland legalized it in 2020. Abortions are widely available across much of Europe, and the only other European countries where it is illegal or severely restricted are the small island of Malta and the microstates of San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra, as well as Vatican City.
As its neighbors shift in the opposite direction, Poland’s tightening abortion restrictions run counter to public opinion. A 2019 poll found that more than half of Polish women support on-demand abortion, and several recent polls show that more than 70 percent of the population responded negatively to the ruling.
The protests have grown from a pro-choice movement to a large demonstration against the conservative status quo in the country. During some protests, young people confronted priests and disrupted church services. Beyond the debate over abortion restrictions, Poles are now pushing back against homophobic political rhetoric, the lack of progress from the #MeToo movement, and nationalistic tendencies. Many organizers and participants are now calling the “Women’s Strike” a revolution akin to the anti-government protests taking place in nearby Belarus.
“In a very painful and dramatic (sometimes also funny) way the old world is melting now and a new one is crystallizing,” said Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, to the New Yorker, referring to the demonstrations.
Polish women are on the rise, with one of the lowest wage gaps in the OECD (an international economic organization made up of Poland and thirty six other states) and a high percentage of young women graduating from university compared to their male peers. If the right-wing political establishment chooses to ignore this fundamental shift, they do so at their peril.