The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland did not have a good start to the autumn. It threw its weight behind new proposals on abortion – already abnormally restrictive in the Catholic, east European nation – which would have effectively have outlawed the practice entirely. Less than a week later, thirty thousand black-clad people, mainly women, flooded onto the streets of Warsaw in protest, as part of a nation wide movement named ‘Black Monday’. The action brought hospitals, schools and businesses to a grinding halt. By the end of the same week, the PiS’ committee had recommended the proposals be rejected and on Thursday they were overwhelmingly voted down in Parliament by 352–58. This tumultuous fortnight speaks volumes about the increasing tension between a conservative establishment, bolstered by the Vatican, and increasingly empowered, progressive elements of Polish society that are prepared to fight for their human rights.
Any consideration of the past fortnight in Poland must be framed within the context of the nation already having some of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the western world. Under the current compromise agreed in 1993, abortions are illegal in Poland except when a woman’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is the result of a rape or incest or if the foetus is irreparably damaged during pregnancy. This human rights infringing status quo represents the influence the Vatican wields over the Eastern European nation and large swathes of its population. The proposals introduced in September that brought Poland’s women out in force last week sought to complete the rejection of a woman’s right to choose in the country. They would have led to a total ban on abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, along with prison sentences for women and doctors involved in having or carrying out abortions were the nature of the proposals that were sent.
post-Soviet modernity has meant an embracing of Western social liberalism
That action awakened a movement that brought Poland to a standstill last Monday and threw its politicians into a mass scramble for cover. In Warsaw, thirty thousand people took to the streets in dismal weather to make sure the strength of their opposition to the new proposals was realised. Across the nation, women picked up placards and took to the streets instead of going to work. Solidarity protests spread internationally. Clad in black to demonstrate solidarity and carrying slogans such as “A Government is not like a pregnancy – it can be terminated” and “My uterus – my opinion”, the magnitude of the protests shocked Poland. The PiS could not possibly have imagined the level of activism it unleashed among Poles for whom post-Soviet modernity has meant an embracing of Western social liberalism. The events of Monday are the clearest sign yet that the cultural conservatism embraced by the PiS is going to provoke resistance amongst significant parts of Poland’s population – worrying to a government that was swept to power by embracing the centre ground.
The dramatic and powerful events of Black Monday have forced a humiliating climb down on behalf of PiS politicians. The government committee recommended rejection of the proposals and on Thursday they were voted down by a thumping majority. Government ministers talked of learning humility whilst the Prime Minister spoke of more ‘considered action’ on abortion. The PiS is walking an increasingly tight line between keeping its conservative, Catholic base on side and carrying mainstream public opinion. With restrictions on IVF and further abortion measures not so far down the line, it seems Poland may be headed for a showdown over the social future of a country struggling to reconcile its conservative, Catholic establishment with an emboldened, liberal and angry population.