NEWSLETTER February 2024

Taking back Polish democracy and women’s rights: In conversation with Wanda Nowicka, member of Parliament

Poland is back from the brink, and that is excellent news! After two terms of authoritarian and anti-democratic government under the far-right Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS), Polish people had had enough. On October 15, 2023, they voted in unprecedented numbers (74% turn out, higher than in the historic 1989 "end of communism" elections) to throw Law and Justice out. A coalition of center-right and left-wing parties, organized in three groupings: the Civic Coalition (center right), the Third Way (right) and the Left, now form the government. In a stunning rout, the PiS lost its hold on the Sejm (the lower house of Parliament), and was unable to take back the Senate.

The March of a Million Hearts, organized by democratic parties in Warsaw, Poland, on October 1, 2023  Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

Law and Justice certainly had done a lot to alarm and infuriate Polish voters. The Constitutional Tribunal’s 2021 decision to ban abortion in cases of fetal defects incompatible with life—which Law and Justice engineered after unconstitutionally changing the composition of the court—is widely considered to have played a major role in energizing women and young voters to turn out in October. Abortion had already been severely curtailed by law in 1993, forcing hundreds of thousands of Polish women to go abroad or use abortion pills clandestinely to terminate their pregnancies. But after the 2021 de facto total ban, at least six Polish women died after being denied abortion care, and cases of near deaths were being reported every few weeks. Feminist activists who distribute abortion pills have been targeted for criminal prosecution, and one of them, Justyna Wydrzyńska of the organization Abortion Dream team, was sentenced in 2023 to eight months of community service for giving the pills to a victim of domestic violence. Homophobic discourse and attacks on LGBTQ individuals ramped up, with a number of PiS-ruled Polish villages and towns declaring themselves “gay-free zones.” The public broadcaster, TVP, was turned into a PiS mouthpiece, while courts at all levels were packed with thousands of judges loyal to the PiS.

The Civic Coalition’s Donald Tusk was finally sworn in as Prime Minister in December 2023, after the PiS unsuccessfully tried to hold on to the office. Tusk and his allies are moving fast to dismantle the damage done by eight years of PiS rule and reclaim democracy and the rule of law, a process Tusk has described as needing an “iron broom.” But the obstacles are numerous.

I spoke with member of Parliament Wanda Nowicka on February 5, 2024 to ask her how she experienced the October elections, and how the daunting work of rebuilding Polish democracy and women’s rights was progressing. Wanda was reelected to the Sejm on October 15 under the banner of the Left. She is the chair of the Sejm Commission on National and Ethnic Minorities, the founder and chair of the Parliamentary Group on Women’s Rights, and a member of the Polish delegation to the Council of Europe, where she sits on the Sub-Committees on Gender Equality and Human Rights. Wanda is also a longstanding feminist activist and was the founder of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, the leading organization advancing sexual and reproductive rights in Poland.

Our conversation was edited and condensed, and I added some notes in brackets to provide sources and context.

Wanda Nowicka speaking to Polish TV after she was reelected to Parliament on October 15, 2023, as a member of the New Left Party.

FG Wanda, first of all, congratulations on your reelection and on the fabulous election results. Thank you Poland! We needed these good news!

We last spoke in August 2022, at a time when the Law and Justice Party seemed to be consolidating its hold on the government of Poland, and not always through legal or constitutional means. Although I’ve never found you to be defeatist, you were not super optimistic at that time. Yet in the October 15 elections, in a very welcome development, a record voter turnout caused the Law and Justice Party to lose power. Can you tell me what happened to make this change possible?

WN Thank you! We were so relieved. I’d say one of the factors was a very strong participation of women. The October 15 Coalition, as we call it, won as a group of democratic parties thanks to women and to their involvement. That was really significant. Women got very politicized. One of the main reasons was reproductive rights, but it was not the only one. Never, ever had so many women participated in voting. This also means that women have expectations and that we have a responsibility to women to deliver. They went to vote for a purpose. They want change.

As a result, the coalition of democratic parties has a clear majority in both the Sejm and in Senate, which means that we don’t have problems with one vote this way or that. We have a comfortable margin of about 40 seats in the Senate and the Sejm.

FG Did the women’s movement play a role in mobilizing women voters?

WN Yes, the women’s groups were engaged and did the work. They set up initiatives like Women Go to Elect, an ad hoc initiative specifically created to encourage women to go vote. But, if I were to judge based on how I feel, I think the main factor was the fact that ordinary women—not necessarily members of political parties but individual women—just felt they needed to come out. They got so annoyed and so politicized that they decided to go vote, because they wanted change. They didn’t want this situation to continue, because it would have been disastrous.

FG Were the 2021 extreme restrictions on abortion the last straw, in a way?

WN Frankly, I don’t know if this truly was the last straw. There have been so many! Especially the attacks on the rule of law which, for many people, were completely unbearable. Ordinary people understood that, had Law and Justice continued for a third term, then we would never have been able to reverse all these awful measures. We would have lost our democracy. Democracy had already been badly damaged, but that would have been it. The new, modern Poland would have been completely destroyed.

Abortion also played an important role. In the last two or three years, the death of women [because they were denied abortions] resulted in broad awareness about the danger of anti-abortion laws. We were not talking about abstract rights or autonomy, but about women’s lives, the fact that the lives of women—pregnant women—are at very serious risk.

This affected so many people. Even me! My daughter-in-law was expecting last April. To be honest, I was quite scared about what would happen if there was a complication with this pregnancy, which was so expected and wanted. If there had been any medical problems, she wouldn’t have been the main concern for doctors. The prevailing attitude of doctors has become, if there are problems, to wait until the fetus has died. Until then, they won’t intervene. So I was really scared. Fortunately, everything was OK and my daughter-in-law and fourth grandson are fine.

In Lublin on November 6, 2022, a vigil to commemorate 30-year old Izabela, who died of septic shock after doctors refused to perform an abortion. Five other women have died in similar circumstances since 2021
Credit: Agencja via REUTERS

In the past, abortion used to be seen as a more marginal issue raised by “crazy feminists.” But now, many women, many people in fact, understand the danger. Now they understand that this is serious. This is not an ideological debate; this is women’s health and lives. Opinion polls were very clearly in support of access to abortion.

FG What is the government doing to change the situation?

WN We won the election, but changing this situation is not going to be easy. There are three main partners in the governing coalition. Among those, the Left [most progressive, and Wanda’s grouping] is the smallest. The two other partners in the government are quite conservative, although not fundamentalists. The biggest of the two, the Civic Coalition [led by Donald Tusk] is center right or sometimes called liberal. They have a more progressive program than in the past; nevertheless, they are not extremely strong on reproductive rights.

The last partner, the Third Way, is actually on the right. It is made up of two parties. One is a new party, Poland 2050, which is led by the speaker of Parliament, Szymon Hołownia, who might run for President in 2025 and win. He’s actually a good guy, but was a priest before and is very Catholic. And the other is the peasant party, the Polish People’s Party, which is even more conservative. So, within this big coalition, we don’t yet have agreement on how far to go on abortion. The Third Way is speaking about a referendum, which I disagree with in the Polish context.

And the current President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, is still a right-winger, a Law and Justice nominee. Every law needs to be signed by him, and while we have a large majority, it’s not sufficient to overturn his veto. That means that many of our reforms have to contend with a possible veto. For example, the Constitutional Tribunal needs to be completely changed and reformed. But this President will never sign a law to do this, because he contributed strongly to the current state of affairs, to the chaos in the Tribunal and in many of our other institutions. The election for the next president is in June 2025, and we are not sure who will win then. If Hołownia wins, I’m afraid we might end up with the same situation on abortion, even though he is very democratic and very popular. But I don’t think he’d sign a law to give people abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks, as has been proposed. There are two other solid potential candidates from the left for President, and they would sign such a law. So it’s complicated to make all the changes we want at the moment, although we are still moving forward.

FG So what’s possible for the moment?

WN For example, allowing emergency contraception without a prescription. It will happen very soon. [And indeed, on February 22, 2024, the Sejm voted 224-196 to allow over-the-counter access to emergency contraception to anyone 15 or older].

FG And President Duda will sign it?

WN We will see! It seems possible. Reinstating subsidies for IVF [in-vitro fertilization] did happen. You know that Law and Justice had banned state subsidies for IVF [in 2016] for ideological reasons. The new government proposed a bill reinstating the subsidies, and it was passed in November 2023. Beginning in June 2024, the state will once again fund IVF services, which is very important, because it’s too expensive for many people. And the President did not veto this [despite an appeal by Catholic bishops].

Then, on violence against women, we are in the process of changing the current [1932] legal definition of rape, which has been a real problem. [Article 197 of the Polish Criminal Code defines rape as sexual intercourse that occurs as a result of force, threats or deceit. As a result, Polish courts focus on whether the victim resisted so strongly that the perpetrator had to use force to overcome that resistance, rather than on the victim’s absence of consent]. We want to change it to “yes means yes,” affirmative consent. Law and Justice had also tried to withdraw Poland’s ratification of the European treaty on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention! Can you imagine? It had even sent a motion to the Constitutional Tribunal to do that. The new government has stopped this and withdrawn the motion

Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic, member of the Sejm (The Left), announcing the proposed change to the legal definition of rape on February 15, 2024. Wanda Nowicka is on the right.

I’m encouraged because we have excellent women ministers in the Cabinet. Although the Left is small in terms of numbers in the governing coalition, we have meaningful representation and by very strong women too. The Minister for Equality, for example, Katarzyna Kotula, is a determined abortion campaigner. She will definitely be doing whatever is possible.

As soon as we entered Parliament, we on the Left immediately proposed two bills on abortion. One is the bill for abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The other is to decriminalize abortion to deal with the problem I mentioned before, of doctors not intervening in the event of complications because they're afraid of going to prison. This bill would take out of the criminal code any provisions saying that whoever performs an abortion should be penalized. It would no longer be a crime. Finally, the government and Parliament are considering how to annul the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal that rendered abortion for fetal impairment unconstitutional. Of course, in normal circumstances, annulling a decision of the Constitutional Tribunal can’t be done. But that’s only when the decision in question has been issued by a legitimate body. In this case, we consider that the specific group of judges that issued that judgment was not a legitimate body. Of course, that’s a big step, but that’s what is on the table.

FG And how would setting aside the Court's decision be done? By law?

WN By Parliamentary declaration, most likely. Law and Justice itself took over the Constitutional Tribunal using those kinds of declarations, so we’d use the same methods. That’s where we are after eight years. Of course, you can imagine what the PiS is saying: “You are destroying the Tribunal!” They are now using our argumentation against us. We know that what they’re saying is unfounded, but the former Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, made a short video that he sent out to international channels about this “atrocity” by the current government, about violations of constitutional rights and all that. Unbelievable.

FG They always accuse the left of doing what they’re actually doing! Let’s talk about those two abortion laws a bit more. Is there a chance any of this can be passed before the current President leaves?

WN I doubt it. And, well, it’s actually even more complex than I explained earlier. The Third Way is conservative, but they won’t enforce party discipline when voting on abortion. And the good news is that there are many women in the Third Way, especially in Hołownia’s party, who are pro-choice, and they have declared they’re going to vote for the laws. Actually, many of these women are in my Parliamentary Women’s Rights group, and I’m working with them. They’re great. However, we don’t fully know, when a vote happens, what will be the result. Some of them are definitely going to vote for abortion, some might not in the end. Some who have said they definitely oppose, might abstain. The situation is not completely lost, but the chances are not high at this very moment. This is my assessment.

And then, we still have the President, whoever they are, to deal with.

FG So in any event, you have to do the work of building up the support among the different parts of the coalition, and then you have to hope that you get a different president if you want anything on abortion to happen.

WN Exactly. Meanwhile the Minister of Health, Izabela Leszczyna, who is not from the Left but is collaborative, including with the women’s movement, is working on guidelines to address the situation I described earlier—of pregnant women and doctors’ obligations to deal with complications of pregnancy. The previous health guidelines issued by the PiS have been rescinded, and there is a process to develop new standards for doctors. For some of them, it will serve as support to act; for others, it will remove a pretext not to act. That’s critical.

FG Can you say more about the problem posed by the Constitutional Tribunal? They have the power to stop anything you’re passing in Parliament. For example, if you were to pass the law on abortion at 12 weeks, couldn’t they also simply declare this unconstitutional? How would you deal with that? We have a similar problem with the U.S. Supreme Court, so we feel your pain.

WN Yes. But you don’t have the other serious problem we have with our Constitutional Tribunal, which is that its judges were sworn in in violation of the Constitution. In 2015, when he was first elected, President Duda refused to swear in judges who had been appointed in a proper manner, and then swore in judges who shouldn’t have been appointed. After that, the PiS passed a law to take complete control of the Tribunal. The National Council of the Judiciary was also completely subverted by the PiS. It’s not independent anymore and needs to be completely reformed.

The Constitutional Tribunal as a whole can be challenged on the grounds that they’ve not been elected according to law. Everything about the Tribunal is now unconstitutional. There is even this dreadful woman judge, Krystyna Pawłowicz, who was a parliamentarian before she joined the Tribunal and was part of the 2020 decision on abortion. She and another terrible guy have passed the age of 65 and should therefore have retired, but they’re still there! The Tribunal is completely off the rails. The European Court of Human Rights ruled [in 2021] that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal was no longer “a court established by law.” The European Court of Justice has expressed similar concerns. So it’s a mess!

FG That’s a very serious legal problem. I can see it will be hard to address.

WN Yes. People understandably want change after eight years of this terrible PiS regime, but things won’t change overnight. The state of our media is another issue, I’m not even mentioning it! [The Tusk government has removed PiS cronies from the public broadcaster TVP, and at some point even had to send in the police to clear them from the TV headquarters.] These changes will take time. But at some point, momentum can be lost. They will feel that “too little is happening,” and the political climate can shift. We’re afraid of that.

FG In the Parliamentary Group for Women’s Rights, what other issues are you working on besides reproductive rights and violence against women?

WN For the local elections in April, which are very important, we organized a big conference in the Sejm for women candidates from our democratic coalition, to mobilize them, to help them campaign around March 8 [International Women’s Day]. Instead of just working on one issue or the other, we are working to support candidates across the board. And before that, we will hold in the Sejm a One Billion Rising dance against violence on February 14, Valentine’s Day, bringing together women parliamentarians, with media coverage. [It has been held since our conversation; see photos below]

Members of Parliament dancing and gathering in the Sejm on February 14, for the One Billion Rising campaign against gender-based violence

FG I love the spirit of this!

WN We are also planning regular meetings with our ministers. Many of them are members of our parliamentary group, so we will call on them and check with them about progress. We have the Ministers of Education, Equality, Health, Social Policy and some Deputy Ministers from other ministries. For example, Barbara Nowacka, the Minister of Education, a longtime colleague of ours, is leading a process on sexuality education in schools [which the PiS had blocked]. This isn’t going to be controversial in our coalition. I expect that, by September 2024, in time for the new school year, we will have significant changes in some of the school programs.

Two of the new Ministers in the Tusk government, speaking to supporters. On the left, Minister of Family, Labor and Social Policy Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, and on the right, Minister of Equality Katarzyna Kotula

FG Wow. There is so much going on! It might not feel that way, but you are actually moving fast. I understand that youth organizing was a major factor in the October 15 elections. [Turnout for ages 18–29 reached 68.8%, compared to 46.4% in the 2019 elections]. Do you expect that will continue to be a factor going forward?

WN Actually, yes. Young people are very active and engaged. Their big issue is the environment, where they succeeded in bringing environmental issues from the margins into the mainstream. Politicians have had to listen to young people. That’s important. Another issue is education and well-being. They lead a strong movement, with a big conference held in Parliament recently. The agenda is well-being in schools, access to counseling and psychological support. Bullying and suicide are some of the main issues. There is a very nice LGBTQ initiative they are leading, where they have produced the third yearly assessment of schools’ LGBTQ friendliness. This is done by young people themselves, and it’s very popular. The reports are treated seriously. Of course, the majority of these young people are very pro-choice and supportive of women’s rights, and they are certainly a part of these movements.

I don’t know if you know, but I’m quite active on TikTok. I’ve been called the Queen of TikTok! I do this with the support of a young person, and my followers are primarily young people, 13–14 years old. When they come to Parliament and they see me, they go: “Oh! There she is!” And I smile, “Oh my God!”

FG You ARE the Queen of TikTok!

Wanda inviting students to rank their school’s LGBT-friendliness. Her TikTok videos are humorous and direct, and leave no topic untouched (abortion, Church corruption, contraception, homophobia, the marriage of priests...). The “Queen of TikTok” has 556,300 followers and 13.9M likes @wandanowicka_

FG Now, how is the far-right reacting to all of this? You have powerful right-wing groups in Poland, like Ordo Iuris, the Catholic lawyers’ organization. I assume they’re not sitting there passively. What are they up to?

WN As far as the fanatics and fundamentalists go, they’re not as visible right now as they used to be. One of the reasons is that over those eight years, those leaders—of Ordo Iuris for example—all got top positions in institutions. For example, one of the judges of the Supreme Court, Alexander Stępkowski, was President of Ordo Iuris at some point. Many of them are now in similarly high positions. So we don’t hear much from them. I’m sure they are writing, meeting, but they’re not prominent in the news. They were more active when Justyna, from the Abortion Dream Team, was brought to court. Ordo Iuris presented “expertise” to the court. The judge received this so-called expertise, because he was, of course, a Law and Justice appointee.

Since Law and Justice lost the elections, many of those groups are losing or have already lost either their government subsidies or their positions. One example… You must have heard about Father Rydzyk, the priest/businessman fundamentalist who got huge subsidies from the government—millions of euros from the PiS and the EU—for various businesses and to start a medical school and other schools. And, by the way, to be admitted to the medical school, you needed to have a letter from your priest! Now the European Commission has looked into it, they’re monitoring it and he will have to return some of the funds. So, fundamentalists are not doing that well right now. Law and Justice brought them into elitist circles, and now they find themselves on the outs.

FG One of the strategies used by the U.S. right-wing is attacks on transgender rights and on gender more generally. Has this been a line of attack in Poland?

WN Of course, attacks on trans and LGB rights, and on what they call gender ideology. Trans persons specifically were targeted during the PiS government’s tenure and before the elections. This was especially an issue in schools, where trans teenagers were attacked and not defended adequately by school authorities. There have been suicides of young trans pupils. And, of course, no legal change to make the lives of trans persons easier could be passed. It’s going to be addressed by this government, definitely. One of the problems with Polish law is that, if you want to change your gender identification, you have to go to court. And we have an awful law that requires you to sue your own parents, whether they are supportive or not. To force young people to do this is just wrong. This is on the agenda of the Minister for Equality, Ms. Kotula.

FG In closing, do you have a message for my U.S. readers? We are ourselves facing that critical choice: do we continue with democratic reform or do we have another 4 years of anti-democratic government?

WN I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good decision in the U.S. elections. Should the U.S. go back to Donald Trump, it would be a disaster not only for the U.S., but for the world. Especially in the context of the war in Ukraine and the future of NATO. Here, in Poland, we are very afraid that, if Trump comes back, U.S. engagement in the war will disappear or diminish significantly. This will allow Putin to win. We, in Poland, feel acutely that we are a frontline country. There is a very serious and brutal war next door. And Putin will never stop. Polish people understand that if he wins in Ukraine, he could go further. And as far as American women’s rights go, I also keep my fingers crossed for a good result. I believe you’ll make the right choice.

FG In that respect, I want to thank Polish voters for showing us that it’s possible to say no to anti-democratic forces, even in the most difficult context, even after eight years.

WN It is, of course, possible. Don’t lose faith in democracy, don’t stop believing that it will continue! Don’t think that anti-democratic leaders are unavoidable. They are avoidable, and they must be avoided! I’m not saying it’s easy. All of this is tough. We face the challenges of restoring the rule of law, of being in government, of feeling the pressure and responsibility to deliver, and there are many barriers to change, so it’s a challenge. But there is hope, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

In feminist solidarity with the women and young people of Poland, and all those who cherish democracy and human rights,