On 27th January, a near-total ban on abortion came into effect across Poland, three months after a ruling by the country ’s constitutional court. Poland already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, but the new law - which removed severe foetal abnormalities from the list of exemptions - was seen as totemic, and part of a more generalised assault by the ruling Law and Justice Party (or PiS - short for Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) against Poland’s democratic institutions and minorities.
In response to it, over the course of October and November, gigantic demonstrations gripped the country, shutting down many towns and cities and, maybe, creating the basis for a renaissance for left wing movements and feminism in Poland. Women’s Fightback spoke to Ewa Pospieszynska, an abortion rights activist based in between Warsaw and her hometown Gostynin.
Like many European migrants living in the UK, Ewa moved back to Poland in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, after four years of studying at the University of Surrey and LSE. “Almost immediately”, she says, “I started to feel quite weird here because I realised how radical my views are now, in comparison to the people around me - not only my family and people in my hometown, which I knew were quite conservative, but also in Warsaw. My friends suddenly seemed so conservative; or, rather, I seemed very radical to them.” The experience of coming home confirmed to her that what was needed was not a careful defence of the existing, very restrictive, laws on abortion, but a much broader and more radical campaign, “some kind of movement that would start shifting those ideas.”
Then, on October 22nd 2020, came the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal, a body almost entirely composed of judges nominated by the PiS government since the constitutional crisis of 2015. “When the judgement happened, I was in Warsaw,” remembers Ewa. “I felt like something kind of crumbled. People started to realise that this was only the beginning. More and more their rights and freedoms would be taken away.”
The ruling was not the first time that PiS had attempted to change the law: four years earlier, parliament had voted down an attempt at the same law change after 'Black Friday' protests kicked off across the country. Since then, women’s rights organisations have been subjected to raids and repression by the state, and those parts of civil society offering basic support to vulnerable women have had their funding switched off. LGBT rights activists have continued to wage a constant compaign against a government which talks openly about the dangers of “LGBT ideology” and “genderism”; across much of Poland, local authorities are now declaring themselves ‘LGBT free zones’. Then there was the response to the government’s stacking of the Constitutional Court in 2015, which saw large scale protests.
At last, in October 2020, the movements came to life with a new force through the prism of opposing the abortion ban. “What you could see was a new spirit of solidarity,” says Ewa. “There was a spontaneous protest in front of the house of Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, in Zoliborz, a district of Warsaw. It was very spontaneous without any serious organisation behind it, just some social media posts that had started to spread.” By the following day, the protests had become more organised, as the infrastructure of the movement which started in 2016 - Strajk Kobiet, or Women’s Strike - started to kick in. The scale and energy of the protest shocked everyone. “There was singing and shouting of the slogans, thousands of people marching together; a lot of young people, men as well”, she says. “At that moment, I really felt like - wow! - something might change. The whole of October and November was like that”. The protests were, by some way, the biggest since the fall of Communism in 1989. By the end of the month, many hundreds of thousands of Poles had taken to the streets across more than 400 locations, and they rolled on for a whole month longer.
Barriers and divisions
The protests faced a number of immediate difficulties, most obviously the level of police repression on display. “Already, on that first day,” says Ewa, “the police came in huge numbers and used pepper gas. It was violent - and this sparked even more anger.” As the protests continued the state repression intensified, and, while, as in almost all mass protest movements the violence mobilised sympathy and determination in the short term (“it was a motivation to continue and not let them crush us”), it inevitably took its toll later on. At the time of our interview in mid-February 2021, says Ewa, “there’s a case happening in a town quite close to me: three activists are accused of 'offending religious feelings'. The activists put up some posters and stickers with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the LGBTQ flag - very harmless! It tried to show the hypocrisy of the church, which claims to be open to everyone, but is still very offended by the LGBT flag.” There was a solidarity demonstration planned at the court on the day we spoke, and, she says, people are still following events and trying to coordinate solidarity for those facing prosecution. Wary of state surveillance, the movement has turned to encoded apps Telegram and Signal to organise, and in a country whose human rights record - and constitutional irregularities - are the subject of constant criticism by the European Union, there is newfound sense of fragility to the right to dissent.
The other immediate difficulty is the degree to which the movement is divided over its aims and demands. “At the beginning many different people came together, but they were still from very different sides”, Ewa says. “Some would support going back to the so-called compromise [the situation before the latest court ruling; still the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe]. Others wanted abortion in any case. I would say that the latter group was bigger - but it wasn’t everyone.” There is a constant tension between radicals and moderates in the movement, she says, and that extents to tactics as well: “When we started to target the churches and there were some actions that were controversial - for instance, the writing on the walls of churches or entering during the mass on Sunday and standing there silently in protest - some people just thought it was too much, that we shouldn't go that far.”
Eventually, Ewa began to organise in her hometown, and found an audience whose mood was in flux. “The Catholic church has a huge impact on how people think about these questions,” she says, and “as someone who is from a small town - my dad is a very devoted Christian - I understand how these people think. They are scared to support a movement like this because they feel like they will be punished eternally for their actions. But at the same time, many of them would have this internal struggle because they would feel the abortion these restrictions are a bit too much. So even on the right, even amongst supporters of PiS, they started to question their politics and why they were voting for them. This was visible in the polls, which started falling quite quickly.” Among her fellow protesters, the mood was also very different to the roaring crowds of Warsaw. “I could see, again, a very different dynamic because people were much more fearful. I remember at one protest I had the megaphone and I wanted to lead the demo down the street with the town’s main church. It wasn't a particularly big group - maybe two hundred people - but they were so stressed by the idea of marching on the road, and so we didn’t. And the slogans were different too. The slogan of the big protests in the cities: “wypierdalać” [get the fuck out] - they weren’t comfortable with that either. They would rather go for: “this should be our decision” or “I decide” - those kinds of slogans.”
The new left, hibernating
Eventually, however, the movement petered out towards the end of the year as the government delayed implementing the new law. It was a crucial mistake, Ewa says, for the Women’s Strike not to capitalise on this period organisationally: “Women's Strike did not create organisational structures in the smaller towns when they had the opportunity to. They didn't introduce a system of membership. They were an organisation of leaders who made decisions on behalf of everyone. They introduced Loomio as a platform to host discussions, and they used social media to contact supporters - but that didn’t translate into real democracy.” Without any rank and file organisation, the role of Women’s Strike is today limited to, in Ewa’s words, that of a “help desk”: “They have a helpline which you can use to call them. They barely organise their own initiatives, rather, they just support other people’s”.
“I believe that there's still this revolutionary potential”, Ewa says, “but it's kind of put to sleep, let's say - waiting for a better moment, looking for strategies, looking for ideas, hoping that the parliamentary strategies that are being proposed will work.” To understand the deeper political problems at play, you have to look to Poland’s recent past. “We do have a tradition of struggle,” she says, “but it's been forgotten.” Throughout the 1980s (and the roots of the movement stretched all the way back to the 1950s), an independent workers’ movement led by Solidarnosc waged an inspiring campaign for better conditions and against the Stalinist regime, including some of the biggest per capita strikes in any country in world history. But over the course of the decade, the leadership of the movement turned to the right. As President of Poland in the early 1990s, Lech Walesa oversaw a barrage of free market reforms and privatisations, and went on to endorse the US Republican Party in a number of elections. “Although Solidarnosc was successful in many ways,” Ewa says, “it was also very unsuccessful because it didn’t see the change that the movement had fought for. And I believe that the past few years in politics have shown the impact of these mistakes - it makes people feel less hopeful and less trusting of any kind of mass movement.”
Today, the left is a marginal, if growing, force in Polish politics. Ewa is a member of Razem (which translates as “Together”), a relatively new left party which formed as a more radical alternative to the Communist-successor Democratic Left Alliance. It played a crucial role in initiating the 2016 aborition rights protests and is high profile in the European left, but, Ewa says, “Razem is very small - it has three or four thousand members, maybe. They have representation in Parliament, but it's only six MPs.” In the absence of a mass left (or even centre left) party, the task of opposing the PiS government falls to Civic Platform, a liberal grouping affiliated to the centre-right European People’s Party. “The problem with Polish politics,” Ewa says, “is that the whole political discourse is very much on the right. For years people were choosing the ‘lesser evil’ and Civic Platform ruled for at least eight years. It's actually quite interesting what is happening inside the Civic Platform right now. This is the party that was the only threat for PiS, in any election - but it's full of conservatives and they are, even now, debating what their position on abortion is. Most of them want to return to the so-called “compromise” - the situation we had for almost 30 years, but I think that they have started to realise that this is not what people want. They have to start listening to the people on the streets - and to some of the women in their party as well, who have started to push for a more expansive right to abortion.” On 18th February, since our interview took place, Civic Platform announced its support for abortion up to the 12th week. This policy includes substantial qualifications, however, for instance a requirement for the person seeking an abortion to consult a psychologist. The policy has been heavily criticized by Razem and virtually all activist groups, including Women’s Strike.
Much of the debate within Civic Platform focuses on the possibility of calling a referendum on abortion, something which many of the activists in the Polish feminist movement oppose. As Ewa explains, “I can't even imagine how the question would be formulated, whether it’s PiS that leads that referendum, or Civic Platform, or Hołownia. Having experience of how they treat those issues makes it clear that a referendum would be disastrous. The biggest success of what has happened in Poland in recent months is that we've started to talk on our terms. Instead of answering questions - when does life begin, for instance - we have started to say; ‘well, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter when it starts, and the only thing that mattersis the woman or the person that wants to have an abortion.’”
The movement and politics
In terms of the movement’s political strategy, says Ewa, “there are two major things that we're trying to push. One is a Bill called ‘legal abortion, no compromise.’ The bill would introduce the right to abortion, wholesale - but obviously there's no parliamentary support for it”. For now, it’s more of a propaganda initiative, in which activists will collect as many signatures as they can and propose to parliament ‘from below’. The more mainstream strategy is the ‘Rescue Bill’, proposed by Razem MP Magda Biejat, and backed by more than a hundred women’s rights organisations. “That bill basically aims to decriminalise helping with abortion”, Ewa explains, “so that there's no actual threat of going to jail for supporting women accessing abortions. What we can see is that some MPs - even from PiS - are interested in this Bill, though the hopes are still small that it will be implemented.” A number of high profile cases are garnering public sympathy, Ewa says, for instance one in which a man was sentenced to six months in prison after driving his girlfriend to hospital after she began bleeding heavily from taking an abortion bill at home. The Rescue Bill was due to be voted on on February 26th, shortly after we went to print.
In their everyday work promoting the new initiatives, activists face routine harassment from ultra-nationalist and far right groups. “Just yesterday”, Ewa says, “there was a situation where someone, who was collecting signatures in support of the Rescue Bill, who was attacked by a member of the far right on the street, so there is an atmosphere of fear.” The far right - in its religious conservative iteration - is already in government in Poland in the form of PiS, but look further down the ballot paper and you will find even nastier forces. “Even further to the right is Konfederacja”, Ewa explains. “In the future there is a threat of them and PiS cooperating and ending up in some kid of coalition, but for now Konfederacja is at least trying to distinguish themselves from PiS. So they are critical of the decisions by PiS around pandemic and the lockdown - they even claim that the pandemic is a hoax.” In the recent presidential elections, the Konfederacja candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, got around 7 per cent of the vote. Both PiS and Konfederacja are very connected to the Church, and, she says, “to dangerous religious organisations like Ordo Iuris, which became quite prominent in Poland. Ordo Iuris is doing a lot also to threaten the doctors that would do abortions. They've sent out a threatening memo, for example, to different hospitals in Poland.”
On top of all of the more established right parties, there is a new movement emerging - Ruch Polska 2050 [Poland 2050 Movement], led by Szymon Hołownia, who came third in the 2020 Polish Presidental election. “He's a Catholic,” says Ewa. “He claims not to be far right and he is introducing this new way of talking: about a dialogue, an open conversation. He claims he wants to separate the church from politics, and he has managed to get some prominent politicians from a Civic Platform into his ranks. He is trying to take votes from the left; he is, for instance, advocating action towards combating climate change, which is quite a new thing in Poland. So he seems to offer a new, modern way of thinking but at the same time, he openly says that he wouldn't support abortion in any case. So we have four major parties right now: PiS, Konfederacja, 2050 and Civic Platform. All of them are on the right, with PiS and Konfederacja on the far right.”
The growth of the far right has gone hand in hand with an assault on Poland’s democratic institutions. “PiS have introduced a series of judicial reforms that mean the Polish judiciary is a very political institution right now”, says Ewa, “and here we can see the problems that are culminating over the years - systemic changes that are, piece-by-piece, eroding Poland’s democratic institutions; the media, the judiciary. And then you have the small left, and no real left media. It's going to be a very, very difficult struggle to get left-wing politics into the mainstream.”
In the face of this bleak situation, the feminist movement and the new Polish left has, in spite of everything, broken through and inspired the courage and imagination of hundreds of thousands of Poles. “The thing that was really hopeful about these protests was that, quite quickly people started to radicalise - they realised, ‘oh God, I can be on the streets. I can be attacked by the police. They can kettle us and use pepper gas. But that doesn't mean I should stop doing this - that means I need to push even more!" says Ewa. “I've noticed, for instance, that there's a wave of high school students signing out of religion classes at high school. There is a wave of apostasy happening all over Poland. People are starting to criticise the church more openly. They are less fearful of being critical, which is quite new in Poland, because we rather treated this as a sacred space, which you couldn’t criticise before.”
The feminist movement has allies in a modest wave of renewal in the trade union movement. “One trade union that comes to my mind is OZZ, Inicjatiwa Pracownicza [Workers’ Initiative Union],” Ewa says. “It's a grassroots trade union founded on the initiative of employees of the Cegielski plant in Poznan and local social movements around 10 years ago. It has a number of new committees in different sectors like health care, theatres and education, but recently, around Christmas, they managed to unite with Amazon workers in Germany and organise some major strikes. Poland is a bit of a hub for Amazon in Europe; there are a lot of Amazon workers here. They openly supported the Women's Strike organisation and they openly support the legalisation of abortion and so on.” Other than in the OZZ, Ewa says, there is a very limited organisational relationship between trade unions and the Women’s Strike.
The crucial question now is how to turn the explosive protests of the autumn into a sustainable movement - and crucial to that is what the left’s core demands should be. In terms of its tone and attitude, says Ewa, the left should take its lead from the Women’s Strike: “Although I'm quite critical of the Women's Strike organisation, I liked their unapologetic approach to certain things. They said, ‘we will not shut up. We will not stop using the bad words that you want us to stop using. We will not stop attacking the church. We will not stop saying how things are.’”
Within Razem, she argues for a maximalist approach: “I think we should go for the ‘blank page’,” she says, “for no restrictions on abortions. Otherwise we end up falling into the narrative of the right-wingers. The line we should take is: autonomy of the body means you cannot force someone to give birth. It seems radical. But it's the patriarchal ideology that we’ve internalised in our own heads that makes it seem radical - it’s actually not. Talking about what we think is right is the only way to move that discourse back to normal. And this is the problem we have on the Polish left; people are scared to look too radical. I understand why people are fearful, but at the same time being fearful isn’t going to get us very far.”