Poland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws. Since 1993, the law has only allowed women to end their pregnancies in cases of rape or incest, if their lives are at risk, or if a foetus has serious abnormalities.
But on 22 October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Court, with the backing of the country’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, clamped down even further, scrapping the right of women to abort malformed foetuses.
Women and men across the country are marching through Warsaw, Kraków, Szczecin, Łódź, and other cities, clutching black umbrellas and sporting clothes and posters that bear the image of red lightning; both symbols protesting the ban. We speak to the illustrators whose work has accompanied the fight against this backwards step for women’s rights, both on the internet and in the streets.
“The truth is that rich women will go abroad for medical treatments, and poor women will do it underground, with wires and hangers,” says 40-year-old Warsaw-based artist Agnieszka Węglarska, who used a coat hanger as a symbol in her work. “Myself, my whole family, and all my friends are terrified of what is happening to this country.”
“As an emigrant, I want to know that when I come back to my country, I can feel safe,” 28-year-old UK-based Polish illustrator Pigeon, also known as Kamila, told The Calvert Journal. “Most importantly though, my voice is part of a huge community of women who have had enough, and want their rights to be fully recognised.”
“[This man] symbolises the government party, formed mainly by men who dared to change abortion laws without asking Polish women for their opinion,” 25-year-old Paweł Szlotawa explains. “I cannot imagine a situation where my mum, sister, or friend, has no right to decide about their own bodies. It is absolutely soulless and against basic human rights to force women to give birth to damaged or dead foetuses. It is horrifying.”
“Never before have I seen such a large number of protests in Poland gaining momentum in such a short time,” illustrator Agnieszka Andrukiewicz says.
“It was a very moving moment, seeing all these people, old, young, and very young, marching together,” says artist Magda Kurmanska. “Our healthcare is collapsing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people are dying in ambulances standing by hospital doors, and women who were assigned to have abortion are being sent home without knowing what comes next. To divide the nation in such a crisis… The government and the church have been dividing my nation for some years already: Poland A vs Poland B, poorer vs richer, Catholics vs gay and transgender people. And now this new abortion law. I hope this is their last mistake.”
Stewart Cogle, a British collage artist and primary school teacher who has lived in Poland for 15 years, said that he feels he needs to stand up for women’s rights as a father and a member of society. “If we tolerate it now, then our children will be next. Whatever one’s religious views are, they should never be forced onto one another, there should always be a choice.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale outfit also stands as a symbol for the Polish enslavement to the Catholic Church, and to a system in which women are only needed for giving birth to our (rather than their) children,” 27-year-old illustrator Aleksandra Rebizant, who also used the motif in her work, explains. Unlike other illustrators, for whom the fight is less personal, Rebizant has a strong motive to join the struggle. “My anger stems from the fact that I was sexually abused by my father and I have a deep sense of injustice resulting from treating women as objects.”
“While the whole world is trying to manage the global pandemic, Polish women have to fight for their rights,” 22-year-old illustrator, Marta Pietras, says. “‘Fight the virus, not women’ has become a popular slogan directed at the government. When the whole abortion issue started, I instantly thought about Handmaid’s Tale. Who knows how far this will go if we don’t stop it? While watching the series, I was terrified. At first, I thought it was unrealistic. But later, I started to see the premise for something like that to happen in real life,” she added. “Also, the handmaid’s costume is white and red, like the Polish flag.”