A contentious near-total ban on abortion in Poland went into effect late Wednesday, despite rampant opposition from hundreds of thousands of Poles who began protesting in the fall in the largest demonstrations in the country since the 1989 collapse of communism.
Thousands of outraged women, teenagers and allies returned to the streets Wednesday night bundled up against the cold after word that a ruling that halts the termination of abortions for fetal abnormalities — virtually the only kind of abortion performed in Poland — would come into force.
The decision had been made in October by the Constitutional Tribunal, but its implementation was delayed after it prompted a month of protests. On Wednesday the government abruptly announced that the ruling was being published in the government’s journal, meaning it came into effect.
The protesters chanted slogans like “I think, I feel, I decide!” and “Freedom of choice instead of terror!” In Warsaw, they marched to the headquarters of the governing Law and Justice Party to songs including “I Will Survive.”
“We are dealing with incompetence, corruption, a total decay of the state, so these men are doing what they know best — taking away rights and freedoms from the citizens,” Marta Lempart, a protest organizer, told the television station TVN24 on Wednesday. “This is about women, but also about all other minorities and majorities that Law and Justice hates.”
Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday criticized the decision to suddenly announce that the ruling would be published in the Official Journal. The government had previously delayed publication of the ruling in an apparent answer to the protests, a move that legal experts have called unconstitutional.
“It’s not only women whom you’re bringing to the streets, it’s the whole nation that has had enough,” said Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, adding the decision to publish the ruling “against the will of Poles” was a “conscious and calculated acting to the detriment of the state.”
Others did not mince words in their discontent. “Bastards. #pseudo-ruling #pseudo-tribunal,” Barbara Nowacka, a center-left opposition lawmaker, said on Twitter.
The decision by thousands to protest, despite a surge in coronavirus cases, was another sign of discontent from a wide array of groups that believe human freedoms are being eroded under the Law and Justice Party, which is growing increasing autocratic. It also comes as public anger is rising over the government’s handling of the pandemic — extending restrictions to the end of January — and a sluggish vaccination rollout.
Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, with the procedure legal in only three instances: fetal abnormalities, pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and threats to a woman’s life. The latter two remain legal. But with 1,074 of 1,100 abortions performed in the country last year because of fetal abnormalities, the ban would outlaw abortion in most cases, and critics say many women will resort to illegal procedures or travel abroad to obtain abortions.
Even without the ruling in force, some hospitals had pre-emptively instructed doctors to stop performing abortions for fetal abnormalities, fearing the legal ramifications for their doctors, according to local media.
European lawmakers, who have accused the government of influencing the court’s decision, also criticized the announcement.
“Many of us cannot be in the streets with you to march in defense of our fundamental rights,” Terry Reintke, a Green lawmaker from Germany who is in the European Parliament, said on Twitter. “But know this: In every village, in every city in Europe there are women following your struggle. Never forget you are standing on the shoulders of brave and courageous women who have fought this fight for many years.”
“For them it is not about protecting life,” said Donald Tusk, an opposition Polish lawmaker and former president of the European Council said of the Law and Justice Party. “Under their rule more and more Poles are dying, and less are being born.”