Over 60 countries around the world have chosen to liberalize access to abortion since 1994. Poland is one of the very few countries that have gone in the opposite direction during that period. Why has this happened in Poland and what can we learn from Polish activists?
The process by which reproductive rights were curtailed began soon after the fall of communism. At that time, Poland’s newly elected Solidarność government acquiesced to demands by Poland’s Catholic bishops that Catholic teachings be brought back in public schools. Demands to ban abortion were next, and several bills to that effect were introduced in Parliament.
At that time, Wanda Nowicka was a high school teacher, a mother of three boys and the co-founder of Neutrum, a group that promoted secularism in government. When threats against women’s rights began to mount in 1991, Wanda dove full-time into activism. She co-founded the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA), to this day the prominent feminist group advancing women’s reproductive health in Poland.
Members of FEDERA along with other democracy and feminist activists mounted a huge signature campaign to force a referendum on abortion, with over 1.7 million signatures collected in person, a feat prior to the advent of the Internet! They were shocked when the Solidarność government ignored their petition and summarily rejected the call for a referendum. In March 1993, the government passed a law to ban abortion except in cases of rape, fetal malformation and danger to the life of the woman. Abortion had been legal and widely available since 1956: the shock caused by this reversal was great. Many Polish women turned to underground abortion, and to abortion services in neighboring countries. But the most vulnerable women and girls could not obtain services: they, predictably, suffered forced pregnancies, injuries and even death as a result.
Repeated attempts were made by progressive political forces to reverse the abortion ban, with a brief time in 1996 where access was broadened by Parliament, but curtailed again by the country’s Constitutional Court. Yet the existing, highly restrictive law did not satisfy the ultra-conservatives. In 2016 and 2018, the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) attempted to pass a law to further tighten abortion restrictions. Massive demonstrations by the women’s movement across Poland succeeded in blocking these measures.
In 2020, the Constitutional Court struck again, this time declaring that abortion in cases of fetal malformation was unconstitutional. This opinion became the law in January 2021: a de facto ban on abortion in the country.
In 2011, Wanda was elected a member of the Lower House of Parliament and became its Vice-Speaker. She served until 2015, and was elected again in 2019. She is currently the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on National and Ethnic Minorities, and a founder and Chair of the Parliamentary Group for Women’s Rights. Wanda is simply amazing: a fierce, unrelenting, and brilliant advocate for reproductive rights, gender equality, democracy and a fair and just society.
I spoke to Wanda on August 22, 2022, to hear her thoughts on the current state of affairs in Poland. What lessons do feminist activists in Poland have for the rest of us at this time of growing attacks on democracy and increasing backlash against women’s rights? What lessons especially for US activists, who now face the once-unthinkable prospect of a countrywide abortion ban, even as a significant majority of Americans continue to favor abortion rights? Our conversation was edited and condensed.
FG: How would you describe the situation for reproductive rights in Poland today? Can it get any worse?
WN: Unfortunately, I must say it can get worse. When I look at the example of our sisters in El Salvador, it shows that it can always get worse. Polish women don’t go to prison for 50 years if they miscarry a pregnancy, but the situation is really dramatic. In a nutshell, we have restrictive legislation since 1993. Before that, we had had legal abortion since 1956. After almost 40 years, we had repression of women’s reproductive rights. And at that time, since I was very active in fighting against those restrictions, I remember thinking this was the worst that could happen to Polish women. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Worse came in 2020. There had been a series of repressive draft legislations, which we fortunately succeeded in fighting against. In the 20th century, we still had hope that we might still be able to liberalize abortion again. However, in the 21st century, with the very strong rise of fundamentalist movements, we knew that worse was coming, because this pressure to go further with repression was growing and growing. The extreme right government [the Law and Justice Party or PiS], which is now in its second term, decided to restrict abortion not via Parliament, but via the Constitutional Court. Because in Parliament, they couldn’t be sure that going further with repression would succeed. So, they decided they needed the Constitutional Court, which is completely controlled by the leadership of the Law and Justice Party, and the Court decided that abortion for fetal malformation is against the constitution. So now, theoretically speaking, because theory and practice don’t go together inPoland, abortion is only allowed on medical grounds [when the life of the pregnant person is in danger] and criminal grounds [when the pregnancy is the result of rape]. But only theoretically, because in practice it is almost inaccessible. In practice, we say that abortion is completely illegal now in Poland, because it is not accessible.
FG: What has been the impact of the abortion ban on women and other pregnant people in Poland?
WN: Restrictions do not stop abortions, that we know. But the other thing is that restrictions stop the medical community, who become afraid of providing any services. And unfortunately, the result is that Polish pregnant women die, as a result of lack of services even in cases of pregnancy complications. Doctors are so scared of providing abortion that they just postpone taking any action until the fetus shows no sign of life. That was the case of a number of women, the most famous of which was Izabela from Pszczyna in southern Poland. Another was Agnieszka from Częstochowa. They already had other children, and these were wanted pregnancies. But there were pregnancy complications—complications which in the 21st century, in the middle of the European Union,in our modern world, can be medically addressed… but these women were just left to die.
In 2000, we knew of one or two cases a year. Now we have one or two every few weeks. Women are at risk. It’s not an accidental thing, or due to ignorance. This is a systematic approach to pregnancy and women’s health.
There is also growing repression against women who help, what do you call it? “aid and abet” other women to obtain abortion services such as abortion pills. In Poland, women’s groups help women access abortion, and now those activists face court cases. For example, Justyna from the Abortion Dream Team, connected to WomenOnWeb, is facing up to three years in prison. The system is more and more repressive.
One thing I must note is that doctors who fail to act to save women’s lives face no consequence. We never hear the result of the investigations at the deaths of these women. In the case of Izabela, all kinds of investigations took place, and we never heard any result. The system shows the doctors: “Don’t worry, in case there is a problem and you don’t act, you won’t face consequences. But you will if you take action.”
One of the effects of that is that many Polish women, young women, are now afraid to get pregnant. Because now pregnancy is a risky endeavor. Women in the past were never so personally scared that dying during pregnancy could happen to them. It was something that happened once upon a time, but now, they are aware that either they, a daughter or another family member can be affected.
FG: Is the birth rate going down as a result?
WN: The birth rate in Poland is very low. Any hope that those rulers had, that there would be more children as a result, that never happened. And still, they continue to repress abortion. It’s so irrational. I’ve lived in this system for so many years that I should understand what is going on, but I still don’t understand. Especially if you look at the opinion polls, now support for abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy is very high. It’s about 80%. Among women and young people, it’s even higher, about 90%. There is such a huge discrepancy between what society expects, and what decision makers are doing. It’s actually a sign of the lack of democracy in the country, really.
FG: So how is it that these right-wing politicians get re-elected?
WN: Overall, the Law and Justice Party is leading a politics of hate. Everything is hate of others. And others can be immigrants—although not Ukrainian immigrants! Dividing society, pitting one group against the other, historical grievances against communism even though communism is long gone. A lot of resentment. LGBT, gender, feminists... all these are enemies. This is not very effective in society at large, but in some communities, in local politics, it can be very effective. You heard about the LGBT-free zones announced in some small towns. It works in some places, and that’s enough to get Law and Justice the support they need. They use the issue of abortion the same way, to mobilize their fundamentalist base to get the few extra votes they need.
But I must defend Polish society. It’s now much more progressive. Young people, high school students even, participate in the Women’s Strike protests. This never, ever happened before. We never had 15-year-old girls, and also boys, going to the streets, and they understand what feminism is about. These are positive changes, although, of course, we can’t wait for these young people to grow up to make the change!
FG: The huge mobilizations in Poland against abortion restrictions, homophobia and xenophobia, in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021 have been so impressive, yet the repression continues.
WN: Well, I need to say that since the mid-2010s, freedom to march has become more limited. The police forces sent to the streets during protests by the Women’s Strike are so violent, there are so many cases of physical aggression and harm, the use of kettling, arrests, women sent to police stations 50 or 100 km from Warsaw… these kinds of repressive measures have affected the marches. It didn’t stop the protests, but there is less street action. This was made much worse during COVID, from 2020 on. The right-wing government decided that these protests needed to stop, and they have taken action to stop them.
Before that, women could march, shout radical slogans. Police didn’t act unless someone was violent, and women’s marches were not violent. But now women are being attacked. We, members of Parliament, have been attacked when we have marched. There have even been some MPs, not me but others, who have been gassed during protests. Police doesn’t care, and we have such an awful Minister of Justice, that they know they don’t need to care. So, it’s not only our reproductive rights that have been taken away, but also our civil rights, or freedom of expression and demonstration.
FG: Wow. There are so many parallels with what is going on in the US. I was wondering, how has the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US affected the situation in Poland?
WN: We are looking at what is happening in the US with sorrow and with solidarity. But also with the feeling we know well, that this was coming, that this was inevitable. Just as it happened in Poland with our Constitutional Court, when we knew who the judges were and what they were going to decide. Given the judges on the Supreme Court in the US, we knew that nothing could stop it.
The US has always been, for us, a model. Something we looked up to, not only because of how you gained your rights, but also were able to protect them. So now, we lost a point of reference. And it shows us that we can never trust that we will never lose our rights—we have to fight for them every day.
FG: And it feels to me as though the strategy of the right-wing taking over the courts was tried in Poland first and it worked. And now it’s been done in the US. The right-wing have learned from transnational experience, and perhaps US feminists didn’t pay enough attention to transnational experience, to what was happening in Poland.
WN: Yes. Faculties of law in Poland have become nests of fundamentalist lawyers. For example, the people active in Ordo Iuris, the fundamentalist [Catholic, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration] organization behind so many bad changes in Poland, are professors and former students of the Faculty of Law of the University of Warsaw.
FG: Ah, yes. On the US Supreme Court, five of the six judges who voted to overturn Roe studied law at Harvard or Yale.
WN: That’s the strategy. They know how to work long-term. First the university, where you educate lawyers to use and manipulate human rights instruments. The documents they produce are not those crazy fundamentalist documents we remember from UN negotiations 20 years ago, invoking God and so on. What they produce today, for example, on LGBT-free zones, are based on their interpretations of human rights instruments. It’s much more dangerous. They are not just outside, but inside institutions.
FG: Poland has welcomed over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine. I assume many of these refugees need abortion care or birth control, and that many are pregnant, have experienced rape and sexual violence? Is there decent access to reproductive healthcare for these women?
WN: Ukrainian women have the same access to healthcare as Polish women, which means access to the free, public system of healthcare. But that means the same poor access to reproductive healthcare. So, women Parliamentarians have demanded that Ukrainian women be treated better than Polish women. Why? For abortion on the basis of rape, for example, the law requires a document signed by a prosecutor before 12 weeks of pregnancy, reporting the rape. As you can imagine, no one can ever get this piece of paper, and last year, there was not a single legal abortion in a case of rape in Poland. We said that in the case of Ukrainian women, this period should be extended, and that services should be available to them. The government replied that the law in Poland is the same for everyone. There are no special services, even though Ukrainian women are not only victims of war and violence, but also in a foreign country, where they don’t know the laws and the system.
FG: How is access to birth control today? I remember it was quite expensive.
WN: It would be very logical if you want to reduce the number of abortions, to invest in contraception. But no, contraception is also very bad, for religious reasons. Contraceptives are in theory available in the public sector, but in practice you have to see a private doctor to get a prescription (30–40 euros a visit), and pay for the contraceptives on top of that. This makes it unaffordable for young women, unemployed women, immigrant women.
FG: Wow, this is a disaster.
WN: It is a disaster. And access to sexuality education is terrible too. We have many crazy ministers in our government, but the Minister of Education is particularly crazy. Some schools try to do something more progressive for their students, but in most cases, the lessons are highly ideological, all about abstinence until marriage, that sex before marriage is harmful to the family, and so on.
FG: I’m inspired by the feminist movement in Argentina, and its large annual meetings that bring feminists from all over the country. Are there similar large meetings of feminist activists in Poland?
WN: Not anymore. There used to be a women’s congress. It was not always very progressive, but still was a forum, a platform, where people connected, ideas were discussed, networks were built. It doesn’t work anymore for various reasons. There is the Women’s Strike movement, of course, which is active, but is more online. Parliamentarians from the left together with the women’s movement began a civic legal initiative: “Legal abortion without compromise.” We collected about 200,000 signatures, the draft law was discussed in Parliament. Of course, it was rejected as we expected, but it gave a platform for activists, especially those from the Abortion Dream Team, to speak in Parliament, which was a unique and important thing. Parliament is also for feminists.
But I’m really inspired by young activists, new activists. The younger generation (20+) are now quite politicized. I feel hope when I work with them. I’m an honorary member of the Young Left, actually! They—and they include young men too—are very engaged with women’s rights, abortion rights, LGBT rights. They are trying to organize across progressive movements, they invited members of trade unions to the last meeting I attended. I’m very inspired by them.
In solidarity with Polish feminists and their continued struggle for democracy, justice and freedom,