Stop this crackdown on abortion in Poland

As Poland’s rightwing ruling party seeks to tighten an already restrictive abortion law, there is a growing solidarity among women in the struggle for our reproductive rights.

In my desk drawer, I have the signatures of 1,500 Polish women who support liberalising our country’s abortion law, which bans the procedure except in cases of rape, incest, foetal anomalies, or when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. The signatures arrived too late – the day after our petition to support a more liberal law was due to be delivered to the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, but I won’t throw them out. I know what they represent – the growing solidarity among Polish women (and many men) in the struggle for our reproductive rights, a struggle once left to feminist groups working at society’s margins.

No longer. On Wednesday our fight will come up against another draft law – the “Stop Abortion” law – which has been put forward by the ruling Law and Justice party. Supported by the Catholic church, it would ban abortion in all circumstances except to protect the life of the pregnant woman.

Not a single MP has publicly supported our draft law in the Sejm. Over the summer, a diverse coalition of NGOs – which includes women’s rights, human rights, and democracy-building organisations – collected more than 200,000 signatures for our petition – twice the number required to ensure a debate in parliament.

Our draft “Save Women” law would allow abortion on request in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, increase access to contraception and sex education, and preserve existing exceptions for foetal anomalies until the 24th week, and for rape or sexual abuse until the 18th week.

Last weekend, thousands gathered outside parliament in Warsaw to protest at the “Stop Abortion” law – a show of force that has taken everyone in our country by surprise. It is as if Polish women have woken up from a long dream. We had grown accustomed to our abortion law (the wealthy merely paid for the plane tickets and medical procedures needed to work around it) and everyone seemed to accept it as a measure to keep the peace in our predominantly Catholic country. But even Catholic women are appalled at the move by the Law and Justice party to restrict our already limited reproductive rights. “Not one step further,” goes the rallying cry.

The current law is more conservative than it appears on paper because so many doctors opt out of providing abortions by claiming to be conscientious objectors – my organisation, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, learns of at least two or three such cases every day. Even more problematic is the fact that some doctors make this objection in their work at public hospitals while continuing to provide abortions at high prices in their private practice.

Because the “Stop Abortion” law further criminalises doctors who perform abortions, the sole remaining exception allowing it to be carried out to protect the life of the pregnant woman would be meaningless. Doctors have told us they would err on the side of caution if the alternative might mean spending five years in prison.

In fact, the draconian nature of the law has done more to broaden support for women’s rights in Poland than any effort by women’s groups. Europe has taken notice too. Polish reproductive rights will be debated next month in the European parliament.

The 1,500 signatures I have in my drawer may not sound like a lot. But consider the context. Before this law was proposed, my organisation had about 4,000 individual supporters. Today we have about 6,000. Visits to our website have increased by 25% in the past two months, and our Facebook followers have grown by more than 50%. More women visited our office in June and July than in the previous 25 years – tangible proof of the growing interest in women’s reproductive rights.

One woman I spoke to at first declined to sign our petition. “Oh no, I couldn’t,” she said. “I’m against abortion.”

Then she proceeded to tell me that, as a second-year student, she would find a way to have an abortion if she got pregnant because having a child at this time in her life would derail her studies. When I pointed out the injustice inherent in being for her own abortion but against every other woman’s, she signed the petition.

When I talk to people about our efforts, I never say we are “for abortion”. I say we are for the right to safe, legal abortion. In a country where 150,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, that shouldn’t be a radical idea. Indeed, the “Save Women” petition shows that it isn’t.