How dangerous women will save Poland

Anna BlusAnna Błuś is a London-based Polish human rights advocate with a particular interest in migrants’ and refugees’ rights. She currently works as a Legal Project Manager with the AIRE Centre, a human rights NGO, leading migrants’ rights projects in the UK, with a particular focus on Roma migrants’ empowerment. She has previously worked with a number of Irish NGOs, for instance NASC, The Irish Immigrant Support Centre and the Galway Traveller Movement, after working as an international Project Manager in the private sector for several years. She holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland and has published on rights of migrants with irregular status in the European Journal of Migration and Law. She has lived in several countries and enjoys learning languages, currently trying to grasp the basics of Arabic. She loves travelling and photography and practices her long-distance running as opposed to using London’s public transport as much as she can.

On Saturday, the 9th of April, thousands of women in Poland, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Romania and even as far as Australia took to the streets to protest the proposed legislative changes that would result in a complete ban on abortion in Poland. The legislation would also strip Poland’s women of constitutional protection of their rights to appropriate and safe healthcare, dignity and, essentially, the right not to be subjected to torture and inhumane or degrading treatment.

The new bill was proposed in a citizens’ petition and backed by Poland’s Catholic bishops, the (female) Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, and the leader of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. It would prohibit terminations in all circumstances, including the very limited ones in which they are currently permissible – when the woman’s life or health is in danger; when there is a high risk that the foetus will be severely and irreversibly damaged or suffering from an incurable disease, and when the pregnancy may be a result of rape or incest.

If the new law is passed, terminating any pregnancy will become an offence: when you were gang raped. When you know you may not survive the delivery. When the baby will not live beyond a few minutes. If you are eleven.

On 3 April, three days after Prime Minister Szydło expressed her support for the complete ban proposal, a video recording of dozens of people walking out of a church in Gdańsk, one after the other, when the priest decided to share his views on reproductive rights, made the rounds in the media worldwide.

It seems to have lent momentum to the surge of fury and resistance that has been brewing among Poles for quite some time. Groups such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning or the 8th March Women’s Coalition have been campaigning for better reproductive rights for years. The recent proposals seem to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, however, drawing immense support and stirring a current that was tame too long, perhaps. The many controversial proposals, actions and civil rights infringements from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, from dismissing the management of the national broadcaster to attempting to change procedure of the Constitutional Court were met with nationwide protests, continuing for the past few months, and have just been deemed a threat to democracy and the rule of law by the European Parliament.

The reproductive rights protests have united women and supporters beyond the national borders and garnered an impressive outpouring of solidarity. I was proud to be standing, with others, for our rights that Saturday in Berlin. Our voices were loud and clear and our strength apparent, that day and in the many campaigns, petitions and social media actions.

It is evident that the anti-abortion proposals are not about reproductive rights as such – they are about power. The power over the minds, the votes, over who stays and who, like me, fears the prospect of returning to a country where a miscarriage could lead to prosecution. Like those whose right to marry is not recognised in Poland and whose reproductive rights would suffer even further, with presumably a total ban on IVF.

It is important for us, women, and our supporters to keep the momentum and use our power until we see the results and to remain united above all political or other divisions. There have been reports of families with children and diverse allies showing up at the protests in Poland. On the other hand, accounts of LGBTQI activists being castigated for having dared to speak out for reproductive rights have also emerged. Just as so many have shown us support over the past few weeks, we need to stand in solidarity, not only with women in Ireland, Northern Ireland, or wherever else in the world our rights are abused, but also with each other. Just as the Polish state and the Catholic church have to wake up to the fact that Polish society is not a homogenous mass, those fighting for reproductive rights in Poland have to be inclusive.

Our force is in unity – let’s continue to be strong.