Thousands took to the streets of Polish cities on Wednesday, capping a week of daily protests that started after a top court decision that effectively bans abortions.
Protesters gathered in communities large and small. A large crowd gathered in front of the Polish parliament in Warsaw late on Wednesday before marching to protest in front of the headquarters of governing party Law and Justice (PiS).
Some demanded the Polish government resignation, sometimes using profane language. Other cities that saw marches included Gdansk, Krakow, Lodz, Poznan and Wroclaw. There were also protests in front of Polish embassies abroad.
Across the country, workers followed the call of a women’s rights organization to strike in solidarity with the protests.
Local media reported that many employees – both women and men – at public institutions, universities and private firms took a day off work.
At issue is a ruling last week by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which declared that abortions due to irreversible congenital defects, covering a wide range of conditions from Down’s syndrome to fatal illnesses, are illegal as they violate the constitutional guarantee of protecting the life of every individual.
Abortion will be legal only if the pregnancy poses a threat to the life or health of the mother or when it is the result of a prohibited act, such as rape or incest. Last year, only several dozen such terminations were performed.
The court’s decisions led to massive street protests, with ire directed at PiS and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as many outside PiS see the Constitutional Tribunal as a politicized body under the governing party’s influence.
Some of the ire was also directed at the Catholic Church, whose top representatives in Poland, along with pro-life organizations, welcomed the court’s ruling.
On Sunday, protesters disrupted Masses and spray-painted protest slogans on churches, which met with a vehement response from Poland’s governing majority.
In an address late on Tuesday, Kaczynski said the protesters were trying to “destroy Poland” and called upon PiS supporters to “defend the churches at any cost.”
Kaczynski also said that the protesters, by defying Poland’s anti-coronavirus ban on gatherings with more than five people, are “committing a serious crime.”
On Wednesday, Poland reported more than 18,800 new cases of the coronavirus, the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.
Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician, repeated his accusations on Wednesday, when addressing opposition politicians in parliament. They, in turn, blamed Kaczynski.
“The arsonist took the floor and calls for putting out the fire,” lawmaker Cezary Tomczyk from opposition party Civic Platform said in parliament. “What is happening on the streets of Polish cities… is a consequence of your own actions.”
Human Rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar warned on Wednesday that escalating protests might push the government closer to declaring a coronavirus state of emergency and clamp down on civil liberties.
According to a poll by Kantar, 75 per cent of Poles do not support the decision made by the Constitutional Tribunal.
The protests brought together people with very different views on abortion – from women’s rights organizations that want on-demand abortion to Catholics who oppose abortion, but do not want to take away the right to terminate a pregnancy in case of a fatal foetal defect.
The court’s decision also seems to have dented support for PiS. The Kantar poll conducted during the protests estimated the support for the party at 26 per cent, the lowest since the 2015 parliamentary election.
In view of continued protests, Polish President Andrzej Duda expressed readiness to work out a legislative compromise which would “protect children with Down’s syndrome, but not expose women to psychological and physical suffering” of having their child die shortly after birth, Duda told Polsat News broadcaster on Wednesday evening.
To date, the president has remained silent on the matter, though his spokesperson had welcomed the ruling when it was made on Thursday.
In an apparent reference to the Polish court’s decision, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called for protecting women’s rights.
“Strong women’s rights are an asset and an achievement the whole of Europe must be proud of,” von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, without explicitly referencing Poland. “We should push forward, not backwards. Backsliding is not an option for a continent that aims for winning the future.”
The court ruling will take effect after it is formally announced in Poland’s Official Journal.