From 2016 to today: Polish women’s fight for their right to choose

From 2016 to today: Polish women’s fight for their right to choose

Posted on the 06/07/18

On 2 July 2018, Polish women had to mobilize once more against a draft bill threatening to curb further their already limited right to choose over their own bodies. This is an ongoing struggle, and the last effort to stop the anti-choice groups happened on 23 March 2018. What followed was a powerful march in Warsaw, in which over 50.000 women took part, organized by the Polish Women’s Strike activists. It became one of the largest demonstrations since the famous Black Monday, which had mobilized over 140.000 women in more than 140 towns throughout Poland on 3 October 2016.

Poster for successive mobilizations again anti-abortion bills: 3 October 2016, 23 March 2018 and 2 July 2018

At that point in time, the bill “Halt abortion!” introducing a ban on abortion in cases of serious malformation of the fetus, was expected to be left to die off in the Parliament. However, three months later, under pressure from fundamentalist anti-choice lobbies, including the Catholic Church, the Chair of the Parliament’s Social Policy and Family Committee put the bill on the committee’s agenda. Will this law really be adopted?

We asked Dr. Elżbieta Korolczuk, a women’s rights activist and Polish sociologist specializing in social movements.

Interview by Marc Soignet, EHF Communications officer

In 2016, what made the topic burst into the public sphere was the “Stop Abortion” initiative. Can you elaborate?

Abortion has always been a very politicized topic in Poland and anti-choice organizations now build on the promises to introduce further restrictions, made by right-wing politicians during the run up to the last elections that brought the very conservative Law and Justice Party to power.

In 2016, the anti-choice organization Ordo Iuris Institute launched the Stop Abortion initiative, using a mechanism allowing Polish citizens to propose legislation for consideration by Parliament if they gather 100,000 signatures within 3 months. The bill proposed a complete ban on abortion as well as the criminalization of women undergoing termination of pregnancy. The possible sentence was up to 5 years in prison. Moreover, the bill also foresaw up to 3 years of jail for “unintentional murder of the unborn child”. In practice, miscarriages or minimally intrusive medical tests could also fall under the bill’s scope.

As soon as the initiative was announced, it became very highly publicized and pro-choice groups organized a parallel initiative called “Save the Women”, proposing a liberalization of the law. Both initiatives reached the 100,000 signatures limit but while the latter was quickly dismissed by Parliament, Stop Abortion was sent for further consideration.

This was really a turning point: the issue was not anymore only about women’s rights but about democracy as whole and the ruling party’s intentions to uphold it or not.

What effect did this have on public opinion and the opposition?

Even though the opposition, e.g. the Civic Platform, was unwilling to liberalize abortion law when in power, now they declared their support for the pro-choice groups, as it fed into its wider rejection of the government’s policy of dismantling basic democratic principles.

This new initiative also has to be considered in the context of wider strategies of anti-choice movements at international level, which consist in hijacking human rights and progressive concepts to push conservative agendas.

In the civil sphere, this same shift resulted in raising the awareness of generalist mass-movements such as the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD). Many women active in KOD engaged in opposing the abortion ban. Two mobilization networks emerged: the Polish Women’s Strike and the online platform Gals For Gals. These two initiatives rallied a huge number of people who did not necessarily consider themselves feminists but who joined in to defend both women’s rights and democracy in general.

And this mass-mobilization forced Parliament to dismiss the Stop Abortion bill as well.

The mass mobilization played a fundamental role and definitely showed the ruling party that this issue would become a redline. However, it is also important to stress other factors.

First, for Law and Justice Leader Jarosław Kaczyński, banning abortion was never a priority. He yielded to the Catholic Church and to anti-choice groups but did not make this a defining policy of his party, so there was never any bill proposed in the parliament that was sponsored directly by Law and Justice. Second, within the party itself but also among anti-choice groups, the radical nature of the Ordo Iuris proposal created division. Finally, the support provided by mainstream liberal media to protestors also weighed in, as many testimonies from countries where abortion was completely banned, like El Salvador, were shared and pro-choice movements and progressive doctors were given substantial air time. These factors clearly contributed to both the scale of the protests and the dismissal of the bill.

One wonders why, after such a defeat, anti-choice movements are trying again this year.

They have been trying for years, and they won’t stop. This year’s initiative “Halt abortion!” is slightly different. It does not openly push for a total ban but rather aims at suppressing one of the conditions under which Polish women can abort: the case of severe malformation of the fetus. It is worth mentioning though that over 99% of abortions in Poland happen based on this condition. In practice, suppressing this condition means virtually suppressing abortion in Poland.

Women will be treated as objects. They will be forced to carry out a pregnancy even if the fetus has no chance of survival.

This new initiative also has to be considered in the context of wider strategies of anti-choice movements at international level, which consist in hijacking human rights and progressive concepts to push conservative agendas. The current initiative attempts to move the debate from the prohibition of abortion to a seemingly much more positive message: the defense of the rights of the disabled. The campaign aims at confusing the general public into thinking that abortion based on severe malformation of the fetus is equivalent to denying the right to live to disabled people, especially to people suffering from the Down syndrome.

“This is a woman, this is an incubator!”, campaign image in March 2018

However, contrary to anti-choice expectations, this twisted, more “positive” angle did not make it more difficult for the Women’s Strike to mobilize protests in March. Instead, public opinion recognized that the proposed bill does not only curb women’s rights but that it will also restrict the rights of women who want to have healthy children. Many Poles realized that once such a bill is implemented women will be treated as objects, both in the medical system as well as in private life, e.g. they will be forced to carry out a pregnancy even if the fetus has no chance of survival.

Moreover, the expectation that the scale of the 2016 mobilization could not be repeated was also trumped. The grassroots groups that developed in late 2016 showed their capacity to quickly re-mobilize based on established networks, structures, contacts and know-how. Working in cooperation with existing women’s organizations and grassroots citizen’s groups, they became very effective and visible.

So how come that this proposal was not dismissed as well?

In March, the expectation was that the government would let the proposal die off in Parliament.

Indeed, the women’s movements and especially the grassroots level had really demonstrated that they were here to stay and could remobilize as soon as it was needed. There was also a shift in public opinion: in 2017, 42% of Poles wanted the liberalization of the current law, comparing to 37% in 2016, and only 8% wanted further restrictions. This trend should confirm Kaczynski’s decision to avoid opening afront on such a highly politicized issue. Furthermore, strong voices had been raised within his own party again, calling out the “barbarity” of this proposal. Finally, the Church itself had suffered from these struggles. This had been clearly visible during the demonstration in March, where many women carried banners with strong anti-Church slogans. As public opinion was gradually shifting, the Church’s apparent proximity to the ruling party and to anti-choice movements challenged its position as the ultimate owner of the moral good.

However, since March, fundamentalist groups led by anti-choice activist Kaja Godek have been very active in the Parliament’s Social Policy and Family Committee and the committee finally decided to put the bill on its agenda for Monday 2 July. Once more, Polish women have to mobilize and the Women’s Strike called for a demonstration in front of the Parliament at the moment of the vote. In the end, the Committee decided to create a sub-committee to discuss further the draft bill instead of voting it down. It is clear that this struggle is not over. What we need is a parliament and a president that do not yield to the Church’s bidding, but listen to the citizens’ voices.


Elżbieta Korolczuk, PhD is a sociologist, women’s and human rights activist. She works at Södertörn University; her research involves: social movements, civil society and gender. Recent publications: Civil Society Revisited: Lessons from Poland co-edited with Kerstin Jacobsson (Berghahn Books, 2017) and Rebellious Parents. Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russia co-edited with Katalin Fábián (Indiana University Press, 2017).  For over a decade she was a member of informal feminist group Women’s 8 of March Alliance, currently she is engaged in the Association “For Our Children”, and board member of “Akcja Demokracja” Foundation and Polish Association of Gender Studies.        

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