In 1989, Polish women stood at a crossroads. With the fall of the Soviet Union, women were re-introduced to the concepts of Western second-wave feminism. Like in other post-soviet states, the effects of communism resulted in the fierce emancipation of women in both family and work. Now, looking at the current debate in Poland around abortion and women’s autonomy over their bodies, one cannot help but ask, why now? Why is it that almost thirty years after the fall of the Communist Government in Poland, is women’s right to abortion being questioned?
For those answers one must take a good hard look at Poland’s history, which more often than not is caught between Western ideals, the Catholic Church, and the country’s history of communism. Under the Communist state, both women and men were expected to work which resulted in a massive increase of women entering both industrial and agricultural fields. A popular slogan even arise during this time, “Kobiety na Traktory”(“Women to the Tractor”). In 1956, a good twenty years before the United States and France, abortion was legalized. Contraception was legal and subsidized by the state, and sexual education was gradually introduced into the schools. When the fall of the Soviet Union came in 1989, women that may have looked into the ideals of western second-wave feminism were met with fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, to which, many argue, Poland partially owes its independence to. Western feminism was often placed beside communist reproductive policy.
Currently in Poland, abortion is banned except if using contraceptives places the woman’s life or health in danger, when pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, such as rape or incest, or if the fetus is seriously malformed. But unlike in other nations, polish women are not penalized for termination of pregnancy. This shift from full access to abortion under communist rule took place in 1993. Since 1998, conceptions and sexual education have also been suppressed. Abortion and sexual education seemed to be untouchable topics in Poland. This past Monday, the 10th of September 2016, thousands of Polish women and men took to the streets to protest a bill currently being debated at the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s Parliament. The bill would ban abortion under all circumstances and would include serving five year penalties to any women or doctor caught getting or administrating an abortion. Many critics of the bill also cite that this would deter doctors from doing prenatal testing in fear of inducing a miscarriage.
The “Czarny Protest” (Black Protest) that took place on Monday urged women not to work, attend school, or preform domestic chores to showcase that the rights of women are essential to the progress of the Polish nation. Women and men walked through the streets of over sixty Polish cities, dressed in all black, in order to mourn their reproductive rights. Over 25,000 people marched through Castle Square in Warsaw this past Monday. Teachers taught their classes in black attire to show their solidarity with the movement. Similar protests have been held across Europe and the world, from London to Kiev and Helsinki to New York. The main fear the plagues the Polish government is retribution from the predominantly Catholic Community of Poland. In addition the current government of Poland seems to be moving away from more western ideals. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s first decision in office was to remove the European Union flag from the press conferences at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and to replace the clock in the Council of Ministers with a cross. President Andrzej Duda shares the same skepticism of the European Union as well as fierce belief in Catholicism this counterpart Prime Minster Szydlo.
Currently in Poland several hundred legal abortions are conducted each year. Activists claim that tens of thousands are done illegally throughout the nation, and that many women have to cross the border to Germany or Slovakia to get an abortion. Any further ban on abortion rights in Poland will likely result in an influx of Polish women either undergoing dangerous procedures to get an abortion, or crossing the border to neighboring countries for abortions. All of this would also take place under the threat of a five year imprisonment.
Looking at the debate in Poland today, and seeing the ripple effect it is causing all over the world, one thing seems for sure: women around the world are tired of having others tell them what they can and cannot do with their bodies, and standing on the sidelines when politicians try to strip away their basic reproductive rights. Women in Poland, and around the world, are sending a clear message: These are our bodies, and it is our right to decide what happens to them.
Featured image: Black March in support of abortion rights, Łódź October 2nd 2016 – Zorro 1121/Wikimedia Commons