Your body, not your choice: Poland’s Populist Wave

In recent months, women in Poland have experienced the repercussions from the passing of some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in Europe from the ruling Law & Justice (PiS) party, notorious for having an extensive history in ruling against other issues such as euthanasia, comprehensive sex education and invitro feralization. It seems that in Europe, with the rise of populist nationalist movements, Poland has followed in suit in implementing conservative positions of issues on abortion where they already were among the strictest in Europe, saw the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on accepting an almost total ban. The new ruling that went into effect in October means that the 98% of abortions that were carried out on the grounds of standard pregnancy terminations, will be made illegal and only issued in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother which currently only make up only about 2% of legal terminations.

A legal challenge was made against the 1993 law permitting abortion in cases of severe fetal disabilities, accounting for 98% of terminations carried out in Poland, and was launched by MPs from PiS after being pressured by Bishops and lay Catholic groups. Poland’s conservative government has strong ties to the country’s powerful Catholic Church, 92.9% of all Polish citizens adhere to the Roman Catholicism making it one of the most devout countries in Europe and heavily intertwined with the Polish government, for example Tadeusz Rydzyk, an influential priest in Warsaw is also the owner of both a television network and radio station that receives mass funding from the PiS.

As a result the court justified its ruling on the grounds that “an unborn child is a human being” and therefore it deserves protection under Poland’s constitution which ensures the right to life. This has not been the first time the abortion debate has come up in Poland, in 2015 a civil initiative to introduce a complete ban on abortion but the Polish parliament, the Sejm, rejected the measure. Despite this ruling in 2016 Polish organizations once again pushed for anti-abortion laws say in the case it endangered a woman’s life and this time the law passed with included penalties to abortion providers with up to five years of imprisonment. On the day the bill was to be ratified in parliament, the ‘Black Protests’ took place in major Polish cities with women going on strike, refusing to work, attend school or participate in domestic chores. This action quickly made politicians to distance themselves away from the bill and although the strikes did not result in a complete reversal of anti-abortion laws in Poland, it brought the conversation of women’s reproductive rights to national attention and succeeded in deterring the government from passing a proposed law that would restrict all abortions.

So if tighter restrictions were shot down once, what was the thought process in attempting this again without expecting the same result? well as per the rise of populist movements globally, the PiS has implemented many reforms and has replaced much of the countries establishment since coming into power in 2015. The party can be looked at ridding the populist wave and taking advantage of the far reaching influence that they have gathered and utilizing rhetoric from other populist leader like Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” and following suit with policies that mimic Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Not only was utilizing populist rhetoric to gain support from the population leaning to the right, the fact that the judicial body that establishes to resolve disputes on the constitutionality of the activities of state institutions has judges appointed by PiS, subsequently giving them an unprecedented majority ruling on all matters.

The Law & Justice Party (PiS) has expanded its provincial influence since the last election in 2011. Source: Polish Election Commission

Despite the countries strong religious ties, the majority of Poles opposed the formation of a stricter ban and demonstrations took place in Polish cities shortly after the ruling. Protesters arrived to opposed the interference of the Roman Catholic Church in public matters, and the domination of all three branches of government by the ruling coalition which severely impacted the decision overall. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, has even appeared to have broken ranks with his government and has backed himself with demonstrators. Despite the passing of the law, women will still seek out seek abortions at all costs, the anti-abortion law has led to creation of “underground” abortion services and “abortion tourism’ where in the neighboring Czech Republic, has seen an increase in Polish women arriving for their services.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and de facto leader of Poland has been quoted in saying in response to mass protests that he called for the defense of the church while calling upon Polish patriotism and that the authorities have the full right to oppose these protests. One can compare these inflammatory statements to that of former president Trump and that they are purposefully used to create division and civil unrest between left and right supporters.

As international condemnation looms, Amnesty International’s Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch has said they would send independent monitors to the Polish court stating that “The Constitutional Tribunal’s upcoming proceedings take place in the context of repeated government attacks on women’s rights and efforts to roll back reproductive rights, as well as legal and policy changes that have undermined the independence of the judiciary and rule of law in Poland”



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