It’s night time in Wroclaw, south west Poland. It’s dark. The streets are filled with people in face masks holding placards and chanting ‘I think, I feel, I decide’. Police vans and officers – some in riot gear, line the sides of the streets to try and keep order. Headlights from the police vans illuminate the protesters.
The crowd is peacefully protesting against Poland’s harsh abortion restrictions. But these spontaneous gatherings can quickly turn to violence if they are hijacked by far right ‘pro birth’ supporters – whom the Polish protestors refer to as ‘Nazis’.
Pro birth is the term used by the campaigners as opposed to pro life – as some of the babies Polish women are forced to carry and give birth to will not live past their first breath they have such severe foetal defects.
Julia Marciniak is a Unite organiser in Ireland. Last month she returned to Wroclaw, her home town, to join the hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the government’s ban on abortions.
Although Covid restrictions in Poland make it unlawful to gather in groups of more than five, some protests have attracted as many as 100,000 people.
“This just shows how strongly people feel about it,” said Julia. “They are willing to risk arrest, being beaten by these ‘Nazis’ – even their lives. Two people were mowed down by a car during a recent protest in Warsaw.”
Julia’s mum goes with her on protests despite being in her sixties. She is a teacher and feels strongly that people must fight against the government’s imposed abortion restrictions.
“I do feel afraid going on these protests. But I want to be a part of it,” said Julia.
Punishment for organising a protest is eight years’ imprisonment and you can be sentenced to one year in prison just for taking part.
On this night, police line the streets parading in their full riot gear. Right wing thugs attack protestors – sometimes waiting for people to be travelling home alone – before beating and even killing them. It can be hard to determine whether the violent attacks are a direct result of people taking part in an anti-abortion protest since these far right gangs attack people for many of their beliefs, as well as their sexuality.
Abortion law touches everyone
“Although the police are ordered to make arrests they are there to protect us,” explains Julia. “They will avoid confrontation at all costs. Some have even been seen to join protests. Abortion law touches everyone. Not just the women forced to carry and give birth to the baby. They have partners, mothers and sisters – so the abortion restrictions affect them too,” she adds.
Poland’s constitutional tribunal has promised to further tighten what are already some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. It wants terminations to be illegal even in cases where a foetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect. This kind of abortion accounts for almost all of the small number performed legally in the country each year.
Although this near total ban has not yet taken effect, some women are already being turned away from hospitals for terminations that had previously been agreed, on one of the three narrow exceptions. These are when the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy, when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, and when there is a high probability of a severe and irreversible foetal impairment.
Most of the protests are organised through Facebook and are not filtering down from any political party. Even people who voted for the right wing Law and Justice Party mostly do not support tighter abortion restrictions.
The Law and Justice Party has ruled in Poland since 2015 and has been accused of eroding democratic norms during its time in power, including packing the constitutional tribunal with its own supporters.
At the moment Polish women must travel abroad to countries like Germany, Slovakia, Sweden or the UK if they need an abortion or pay for an illegal abortion from a sympathetic doctor in Poland. Otherwise they must face carrying and giving birth to a baby that may not survive outside the womb or that they simply don’t want or are unable to care for.
“It is the poor who are the worst affected by these restrictions as they don’t have the money to travel abroad or to pay for an illegal abortion – which can cost up to three months’ salary,” reports Julia.
Official data shows that in 2019 just 1,100 abortion procedures were performed in Polish hospitals. These include 1,074 for embryo pathological reasons, meaning 98 per cent of terminations were performed in connection with the identification of severe and irreversible foetal defects.
“Rape and incest are two of the exceptions to the ban but you must prove that you have been raped which is traumatic for any victim and the justice system is controlled by the government anyway,” says Julia.
Women can be forced to do dangerous things out of desperation. It is feared that many have stopped having any pre-natal screening for fear of being investigated by the government. This is putting their lives at risk and also that of the baby by not knowing if there is something that needs medical intervention.
“People’s private lives are not private anymore. The media and the church are both manipulated by the government in order to push their own agenda. Even religious education taught to children in schools is funded by the government so that they can control that too,” Julia continues.
“The support is not there for families with disabled children, yet more are being born every day. Some of these children are so disabled they can’t even sit unaided and need round the clock care so the parents can’t work to support them.
“If you have a child with a condition like Down’s syndrome they must go before a panel every year to prove that they still have Down’s. This is insensitive and humiliating for the families.”
“Here in Ireland we show solidarity with the women of Poland in their fight for autonomy over their bodies,” said Unite’s Republic of Ireland senior officer, Brendan Ogle.
“We recognise that journey from a country once controlled by Catholic conservativism, to one that has seen the ultimate separation of Church and State, with the delivery of key human rights such as the right to choose, to marriage equality, to divorce, and to gender and LBGTIQ acceptance and rights,” he adds.
It is three years before there is another election in Poland. Julia is hopeful that they can see the end of the Law and Justice party. A lot of the young people protesting now were too young to vote in the last election. It isn’t just women who are deeply affected by the beliefs of the current government.
“You can be beaten and seriously injured for being gay in Poland,” says Julia. “The only revolution we will get is when people vote a different way. People need to be aware of their choices when they vote,” Julia believes.
But Julia maintains there is progress. She says the Church is at last losing its influence over the way people think – a point echoed by Brendan Ogle.
“It’s a fight and a journey that Irish people have been on, with much success. We have seen our Constitution radically changed by campaigning and the will of the people expressed in all of these areas. And the Church, while still respected, has largely lost control of the state as secularism has emerged,” he says.
Equality for all is at the heart of Unite’s ethos. “Unite will always stand with those fighting for their human rights,” says Brendan.
“We are very pleased that our own Julia Marciniak has been able to bring solidarity to the people of Poland from our Union , as well us encouragement and example that these are rights, and fights, that can and must be won.”
By Jody Whitehill