Polish women strike protests, new abortion law in Poland

The Polish women 's leadership revolt over abortion

Poland's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, accused demonstrators of pursuing nation destruction and called on supporters to "defend Poland."

Tens of thousands of women took to the streets in hundreds of Polish cities and towns for a national strike on Wednesday, condemning the decision of a top court to ban virtually all abortions, even as the nation's leading politician urged his nationalist followers to "defend Poland."

Jaroslaw Kaczynski 's call to fight back against the demonstrators and his portrayal of the opposition as "criminals" trying to "kill the Polish country" threatened to intensify an already volatile moment in the profoundly polarized country.

"This is the only way we can fight this battle," Mr. Kaczynski said, using the martial language critics said acted as a gun call.

His comments, made in a speech to Parliament on Wednesday and in a video uploaded to his followers on Facebook on Tuesday night, came as demonstrations extended into a sixth straight day and pulled in the Roman Catholic Church, with protesters interrupting Prayer, vandalizing church façades and staging cathedral sit-ins as they kept coat hangers aloft symbolizing dangerous abortions.

One group of women wearing long red skirts and white bonnets to mimic the subjugated women in the Handmaid 's Tale novel and television series and marched into a cathedral and down the worshipers' aisle.

The women opposing the abortion decision were joined by a number of other organisations opposed to the ruling party 's totalitarian drift. For several, the ban on abortion — made by a court decision that is not open to appeal — was the result of the ruling party 's multi-year attempt to weaken the rule of law and eventually gain control of the judiciary.

Twice ago, in 2016 and 2018, the ruling party voted in Parliament to ban abortion. But it all backed off after national protests underscored political expense. This time, the prohibition came from the Constitutional Court, tightly dominated by party loyalists.

The widespread outpouring of outrage over the past week represented the pent-up rage many feel after seeing institutional slow deterioration to preserve democracy, said Marcin Matczak, a constitutional theorist and law professor at Warsaw University.

The court's abortion ruling, he added, "wouldn't be possible without the prior attack on the rule of law."

The grievance with the church is indeed, in several respects, the culmination of seeing the crucial position many of its figures have played in the law party's political victories.

On Wednesday, people — overwhelmingly women — got out of their workplaces to engage in work stoppage. They flooded the streets in cities like Gdansk, Lodz, Warsaw and Wroclaw, but also in smaller towns like Siemiatycze in eastern Poland, which used to be a Law and Justice Party stronghold.

A huge crowd in Warsaw — most of them sporting masks as a protection against coronavirus — marched to Parliament, stopping traffic, and shouting "Come with us! "People watching the road from windows and balconies.

Many demonstrators held posters carrying anti-government slogans and umbrellas, which in 2016 became an emblem of demonstrations against attempts to prohibit abortion.

"My uterus isn't your sandbox," read one. "I wish I could abort my country," another said.

The country's Constitutional Court released its decision Thursday, tightening what was already among Europe's most conservative abortion rules.

The court's decision prevented pregnancy terminations for fetal anomalies, essentially the only method of abortion being done in the world. Abortions arising from rape and any threatening women's lives are also formally legal.

Even before Mr. Kaczynski 's appeal to his Facebook followers on Tuesday — in which he called on people to protect Poland, patriotism, and "especially" Polish churches — right-wing extremists had hijacked the demonstrations and organized militia groups outside churches, leading to conflicts and minor demonstrations.

Edit Zgut, a Germain Marshall Institute fellow, said Mr. Kaczynski used the "ultimate populist manifesto: if you oppose us, you're against the nation."

Mr. Kaczynski 's call to reject protests came when the nation experiences the biggest coronavirus epidemic since the spring pandemic started. Doctors cautioned that hospital beds run low, ventilators are in short supply, and the health care system could buckle under pressure quickly.

"When some were getting ready for a war with the virus, you were getting ready for a war with the country," Donald Tusk, former European Council president and leading opposition figure, said in comments on Twitter against the government. "Back until a disaster happens."

Poland 's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski,
Poland 's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, accused parliamentary opposition representatives of pursuing country destruction and called on followers to "defend churches."

The rage on the streets was raw, with women claiming they fear they've been pawns in the cultural wars of government.

The church has a special place in Polish culture, partially due to the integral role that many priests, as well as the Polish pope John Paul II, played in the 1980s in the Unity movement and the battle for independence from communist rule.

"Now it's not just about abortion, it's a demonstration about human loss," said Emma Herdzik, an actress who attended protests in Warsaw.

As demonstrations continued, the possibility of violence began to rise, with right-wing activists scrambling to join the fray. And Kaczynski's exhortations to his supporters can further motivate them.

Robert Bakiewicz, an ultranationalist party leader, had already said that his followers would form a "Catholic self-defense" unit, what he called a "national guard," to confront "neo-Bolshevik revolutionaries."

"The sword of justice hangs over them and we'll smash them to dust if necessary and end this revolution," he told reporters Monday. "If the Polish nation can't give us this security, we'll act."

His followers fought with protesters outside St. Alexander 's Church in downtown Warsaw this week, and a photo of one of them tossing a protester off church steps was widely spread around the world.

People protesting Wednesday's Krakow, Poland abortion decision.
People protesting Wednesday's Krakow, Poland abortion decision.

Outside Czestochowa's Jasna Gora Monastery, one of Poland's holiest Catholic shrines, police used tear gas to separate demonstrators and nationalists, according to local radio sources. In Poznan, where demonstrators staged a sit-in at a cathedral, nationalists confronted the party severely beat one protester, according to local news website TenPoznan.

At Monday's Warsaw rally, a car struck two women in the demonstrations. Some commentators said it seemed like pushing the vehicle purposely into the crowd. One of the woman was treated in hospital for injuries and discharged afterwards, police say.

On Wednesday, Gazeta Wyborcza, the country's largest daily newspaper, reported being a 44-year-old Internal Intelligence Service government security officer. Police arrested him, according to officials.

The combustible combination of public discontent and pandemic contributed to the moment's confusion, leading to an extraordinary sequence of bitter debates in Parliament.

Opposition senators held signs of protest as they approached representatives of law and justice, seeking to reach Mr. Kaczynski on Tuesday.

A activist outside Parliament
A activist outside Parliament on Wednesday carries a flag with a red lightning bolt symbolizing the demonstrations

Mr. Kaczynski, backed by Parliament's intelligence unit, denounced the opposition as "Russian spies," while politicians covered him with their bodies.

Cezary Tomczyk, the parliamentary leader of the largest opposition party, Civic Forum, accused Mr. Kaczynski of "calling for lynching" and denounced the formation of "militias" loyal to the ruling party.

Demonstrators attempted blocking an exit after they entered Parliament on Wednesday, scuffling with police defending the house.

"Let's lockout our parliamentarians," Marta Lempart, one of the Women's Strike organizers, said over a megaphone. "We'll do anything not to let them out."

"In Poland, before the Middle Ages," said a crowd speaker.