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Poland and the Struggle for Reproductive Rights Across Europe

Over the course of 2016, proposed legislation in Poland prompted protests that opened a window into the struggle for reproductive rights across Europe.

By Dara Bramson


A girl waves a black flag as people take part in a nationwide strike and demonstration to protest against a legislative proposal for a total ban of abortion on October 3rd, 2016, in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

It was Sunday in Poland, so no pew was empty.

At St. Mary’s Church in Gdańsk, worshippers sat silently, still bundled in puffy winter garb on April 3rd, 2016. Artist Kamila Chomicz sat toward the back.

Earlier that week, Poland’s Catholic Church had issued a letter endorsing the “Stop Abortion” draft proposal, which required 100,000 signatures for consideration to be enacted into law. When the priest began reading the letter — as was the practice in churches around the country that day — Chomicz began recording.

What she captured was not a few, but dozens of churchgoers — mostly women — emptying pews simultaneously while mass continued. That day alone, an estimated 10,000 people demonstrated in Warsaw, the start of a series of protests known as the “Coat Hanger Rebellion,” inspiring the hashtag #EUAbortionFight.

By the end of May, the news was quiet; August in Europe always is. And in late September, the ruling Law and Justice party revisited its plan to consider the abortion ban bill that would further curtail Poland’s already-restrictive laws, criminalizing women who pursue it and health professionals who facilitate it outside extraordinary circumstances.

That’s when things got loud.

The sun had barely risen in Warsaw and my phone was already buzzing.

“We’re blocking the leading party office at 10.30,” a local friend texted.

It was Czarny Poniedziałek (Black Monday) — October 3rd, 2016 — a rainy day that would be coined the “Umbrella Revolution” thanks to aerial photographs from balconies and drones. I found my way by following the stream of black outfits — hence the day’s moniker — accented by red plastic bullhorns and damp rolled-up posters wedged under armpits, demanding attention even from those who didn’t get the memo.

Poland’s story serves as a case study in the larger war on reproductive rights across the European Union.

On the cover of Gazeta Wyborcza,Poland’s major daily newspaper, atop a photograph of women striking and a feature on video games, a limited edition black sticker read ŻARTY SIĘ SKOŃCZYŁY (JOKES ARE OVER) above the words STRAJK KOBIET (WOMEN ON STRIKE). That day, an estimated 116,000 of the country’s 38 million people nationwide took to the streets. Hundreds of public officials skipped work; newscasters from the privately run station TVN24 wore black on air.

That day, and in the weeks before it, protests went on throughout the country, in front of government buildings and opposite cathedrals in main squares, where nuns strolled by licking ice cream cones. The protestors’ faces were heavy with dark lipstick and painted black teardrops. Baby carriages wove through crowds, and marchers raised hand-drawn posters (the vulgar phrases made headlines) above a sea of umbrellas, along with rainbow flags and coat hangers — a jarring universal symbol of dangerous alternatives to safe abortion.

Black Monday made news around the world. Three former first ladies of Poland spoke out against the ban. International solidarity protests were organized in several German cities, as well as in Paris, Barcelona, Belfast, and London. Outside the European Union, demonstrations took place in the United States, Kenya, and Iceland, the country whose momentous 1975 strike, during which 90 percent of women refused to work in any capacity, served as a model for those marching in Poland. By Wednesday, the Justice and Human Rights Committee announced that the proposed abortion ban had been rejected. The protests “caused us to think and taught us humility,” said Minister of Science and Higher Education Jarosław Gowin.

In 2010, a Polish pro-choice organization launched an advertising campaign encouraging women to travel to the United Kingdom for free abortions, which had been legal in Poland during Communism from 1956 until 1993. That August, during a civil hearing at the Polish Sejm (Parliament), Wanda Nowicka, executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, estimated that 10 to 15 percent of Poland’s annual average of 150,000 abortions took place abroad, and that the number of foreign abortions was “definitely growing.”

That was not news.

“Opponents of the new law charge that it will push abortion underground, and that affluent women will travel to Ukraine or to the Czech Republic to undergo the procedure — some are already doing so — and poor women will turn to back-alley doctors or use ancient and dangerous techniques for self-induced abortions,” wrote John Darnton in a 1993 New York Times piece. “Figures on the number of abortions in Poland are unreliable … ten years ago [in 1983] they were put at 300,000 to 500,000 a year.”

The rise of abortion tourism was and is not confined to Poland, which has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe alongside Malta, Liechtenstein, Ireland — to name a few — in the heart of the world’s most pro-choice continent. In 2002, it was estimated that 7,000 Irish women traveled to the U.K. for abortions annually. Earlier this month, Scotland offered free abortions to women in neighboring Northern Ireland, which has laws more restrictive than those in Poland. This sense of pan-European responsibility is underscored through creative global efforts to facilitate access to safe services for women in restrictive countries.

Perhaps the best-known example of these efforts is Women on Waves, a Dutch organization that “sails a ship to countries where abortion is illegal” and provides safe, legal services to women on the group’s vessel, where Dutch law applies in international waters. The organization’s website lists the locations of its “completed successful campaigns” in Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco from 2001 to 2012 — campaigns that inspired the 2014 documentary Vessel.

The organization’s founder and director Dr. Rebecca Gomperts remains the face of the organization. Her most recent project was launched in 2015 and involved flying a drone carrying abortion pills from the German border town of Frankfurt (Oder) to Słubice, Poland, and which visited Northern Ireland in June of 2016.

Poland’s story serves as a case study in the larger war on reproductive rights across the E.U. This was evident in the crowds at a number of protests this past fall, where the iconic blue flag dotted with yellow stars flew. To what extent are E.U. member countries autonomous entities — and to what extent are those countries responsible for the well-being of citizens in their neighbor-countries, or accountable for broader humanitarian checks and balances?

“In recent years Poland’s abortion laws have been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights,” writes Amnesty International researcher Anna Błuś. “The court found that in three cases — including in the case of a 14 year-old rape victim — unacceptable obstacles to women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortion breached Poland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

“It affects all of us as E.U. citizens,” one protester told me, as we huddled under an umbrella in Warsaw’s Old Town. “We may be separate countries, but we need to fight for each other.”

On November 20th, 2016, in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, 70,000 worshipers sat silently, listening to the words of an Apostolic letter read by Pope Francis, whose relatively liberal views culminated about midway through in the following dispensation: “I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion.” This was not entirely new for the Pontiff — he had said something similar in August of 2015 — yet the statement seemed to punctuate the close of a year that saw such turmoil across the continent over women’s rights.

Days after the event, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny confirmed that Pope Francis would attend the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, where the Citizens’ Assembly gathered in early January of 2017 to reconsider the country’s abortion ban. As it was in Gdańsk, this will be another microcosm of the divisive international debate.