Staunchly Catholic, Poland has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe — and a new petition in the country’s Sejm, or lower house of parliament, could restrict those rules even further.
It isn’t the first time that new laws blocking abortion have been proposed in Poland. A bill in 2016 sparked large-scale protests. But with the country still under lockdown in a bid to suppress the Covid-19 pandemic, taking to the streets in the same way is no longer an option: which means that those wanting to protest have had to get creative.
Under current Polish law, an abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or if the foetus has a serious deformity. Some 98 per cent of abortions performed in Poland fall under the latter category. But the latest bill, which came into being after a citizen petition led by one woman, Kaja Godek, racked up more than 100,000 signatures, would eliminate this clause.
Past attempts have been made at pushing similar or even harsher abortion bills, like the 2016 bill for a total ban on abortion, which conservative party PiS decided not to move forward with after mass protests. But this newest attempt seemed particularly cruel under present circumstances, where gatherings of more than two people are banned, and reasons for leaving home restricted. The Polish government received criticism from Amnesty International, who warned PiS about the inherent dangers of passing such a bill under the cover of Covid-19, calling the pending move “unconscionable”.
But how do thousands of people protest under lockdown? In the days leading up to debate on the bill in parliament, pro-choice banners, flags, and posters could be seen adorning balconies, doors, and car windows.
Using red lightning bolts and black umbrellas as their symbols, and slogans such as polskie piekło (Polish hell), nie składamy parasolek (we are not putting down our umbrellas), and piekło kobiet (women’s hell), people decorated their face masks and carried signs when heading out for necessary items. In Kraków, people took part in a “queueing protest” in the main square, holding signs and umbrellas, as they stood two metres apart in a queue outside of a shop, in line with lockdown regulations.
Online, people flooded social media sites Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, using popular pro-choice hashtags and powerful images. People changed wifi connection names in support of women, and added a red piekło kobiet frame to their Facebook profile pictures.
Others found new ways to take to the streets — or roads. On 14 April, the day before the bill was due to be discussed, protesters in cars and on bikes flooded Rondo Dmowskiego, one of Warsaw’s major roundabouts, to create an immediate traffic jam. Protester Karolina Gembara joined the event in her car: “Only about 20 cars could fit into the middle circle so all the other protesters blocked the roads leading to the roundabout. All of them had posters and [lightning bolt] signs. There were a lot of police around.”
Police started taking photos of people’s faces and licence plates, and warned protesters that they were breaking the rules of the lockdown and the law. “We honked and shouted, it lasted almost 40 minutes until organisers on bicycles told us to disperse. At first I was scared because we had no idea what the police were going to do, but when I saw there were so many of us I felt good, even though that feeling of anger is still in me.”
Other protesters focused on practical actions. Anarchist group Syrena Collective took to the streets of Warsaw late at night, covering bus stops and bollards with pro-choice messages across the city. “We wanted to take the streets and space back from the anti-abortion campaigners. They roam the streets with cars showing really violent, brutalised pictures of premature babies bathed in blood, playing made-up statistics through a megaphone. Recently, they added a line about abortion killing more people than coronavirus. The posters we made had contact information of groups that are helping with abortion access, saying that you can get an abortion at home, with pills, it’s safe, it’s an option, you can do this, and your choice is okay.”
In Częstochowa, Polish artist Marta Frej Memy, known for her feminist artwork, created a piece criticising the treatment of women during the pandemic, and projected it from her window onto an after-hours office building. She has also created phone cases with that same graphic, donating a portion of each sale to help the victims of domestic violence.
Ultimately, protestors did not see the bill derailed but instead sent to a parliamentary committee, or komisja. For now, further debate has been shelved, but protestors are making it clear that when the bill rears its head again, Polish people are ready and willing to fight, no matter the circumstances.
“I wish I didn’t have to protest,” says demonstrator Karolina Gembara. “But I hope I will be back on the street because of the enormous injustice happening in Poland. If we [took] to the streets when staying at home was mandatory, we will find our way.”