People wear protective face masks and hold banners as they protest for the fourth day against the Constitutional Court ruling on tightening the abortion law in front of the archbishop's palace on October 25, 2020, in Krakow, Poland. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)

Poland’s Women Are in the Streets
Escalating protests over new restrictions on abortion in Poland are a sign that the ruling PiS party’s illiberal democracy may be losing its grip.
By Andrew Pasquier, The Nation, November 20, 2020

Krakow—“We go right to TVP Krakow! Truth instead of lies!” The updates in the secret Telegram chat kept pinging in. Our next protest target: the headquarters of TVP—the Polish state media corporation that since 2015 has been a mouthpiece of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. It was the second big action on a dreary night some two weeks after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal placed a near-total ban on abortion. The first protest—an automobile and bicycle blockade—was already a success. A seemingly endless phalanx of honking cars and whooping cyclists snaked from the north to the south end of the Vistula River, snarling rush-hour traffic along a major thoroughfare.

The initial Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement emerged in 2016 in response to proposed anti-abortion legislation that PiS later withdrew in the face of demonstrations. What the party’s hard-liners couldn’t achieve legislatively they’ve now won through the courts. Before the tribunal’s ruling, Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive laws regarding abortion, banning it except in cases of fetal defects, rape, incest, or threats to a mother’s health. Last year, terminations due to congenital defects accounted for 97 percent of the 1,110 legal abortions in Poland. Now, with the high court finding the first exception unconstitutional, legal abortions would drop to near zero.

Opinion polls before and after the new ruling have consistently found that a clear majority of Poles oppose further restrictions, with the court’s decision enshrining a minority opinion in a manner somewhat paralleling the fears of many American progressives about how Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment could threaten abortion access in the United States. Building on momentum from past fights, within a matter of days of the October 22 ruling, the decentralized Women’s Strike channeled simmering anger at the right-wing direction of Poland into mass demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of Poles into the streets in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.

The daily protests deploy cohesive, Internet-friendly organizing tactics and symbols: umbrellas and wire hangers jutting out of car windows in the blockades; banners with pink lightning bolts hanging from apartment windows; and minute-by-minute updates via encrypted messaging apps letting protesters know where not to be when the police show up. The Telegram group in Krakow is called Solidarność nasza bronią: “Solidarity is our weapon.” And much like the Solidarity movement strikes in the 1980s, the current Women’s Strike movement is clamoring to remake a divided Poland.

So far—during the current battle in an ongoing culture war—the protesters seem to be winning. On November 4, the government backtracked in the face of the unrest, delaying implementation of the controversial ruling. Yet the abortion issue is just the tip of the iceberg of discontent—a symbol for the wider rollback of rights and the rule of law under the Law and Justice government. Now, a month since the court ruling, my Telegram keeps pinging, and the daily protest actions churn on with a growing list of demands. Kasha, an undergraduate I meet at one of the protests, puts it bluntly: “It’s not only about the abortion ban at this point. It’s about overthrowing the government.”

Facing demographic and cultural change, PiS and its conservative coalition partners have only eked out small majorities in the past few elections. As rhetoric heats up, each side trades blame and digs in

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