On 9 and 10 April, solidarity activities took place in 17 countries across Europe and in Indonesia and the USA in opposition to the threatened anti-abortion bill in Poland and to condemn the prosecution of a young woman in Northern Ireland for using medical abortion pills to induce an abortion.
There were demonstrations against the proposed anti-abortion bill across Poland on 9 April. The bill, waiting for enough signatures to be tabled in the Parliament, would allow abortion only if it is necessary to save the woman’s life. The proposal would also increase the maximum jail term for those who do abortions from two years to five.
Three former Polish first ladies, Danuta Wałęsa, Jolanta Kwaśniewska and Anna Komorowska, have denounced the move. Danuta Wałęsa, the wife of ex-president Lech Wałęsa, made comments in a radio interview directed at Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the governing conservative Law and Justice party, who is unmarried:
“I urge you to come to your senses. You don’t have children, you don’t have a wife. What do you know about the life of bees, given that you don’t live in a beehive?” she said on Radio Zet.
Moving backwards ̶ and not just on abortion
Since the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) won an absolute majority in Parliament last October, it has, according to news reports, “sanitised” the judiciary, the internet, the media and the civil service, and filled the highest court with its supporters to limit its autonomy. The Justice Ministry has taken control of the Attorney General’s office and, with it, all other courts in the land. Sacked state broadcasting bosses and dozens of civil servants seen as complicit with the previous liberal government have been replaced, and there are new snooping powers for the secret services. There have been huge street protests over these changes. Yet in opinion polls, it is said, Law and Justice remains the most popular party.
“We have to show up the hypocrisy of the government. We must never allow them to say they are pro-women,” said Wanda Nowicka, a former MP and one of the initiators of Ratujmy Kobiety (“Let’s save women”) – a counter-petition calling for abortion on request up to 12 weeks..
Poland’s present law, passed in 1993, allows abortion up to the 25th week from conception, on condition that the woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is the result of criminally proven rape or incest, or the fetus is seriously malformed. It is so restrictive that Poland registers fewer than 1,000 legal abortions annually. “Every year, between 80,000 and 100,000 Polish women endure backstreet abortions in Poland or travel abroad for the procedure – generally to Slovakia, Germany or Ukraine,’’ said Barbara Nowacka, leader of the United Left political alliance.
During the week before the demonstrations, women flooded social media with a #TrudnyOkres (“Heavy Period”) campaign directed at the new Prime Minister and her government’s desire “to control our uteruses, ovaries, and pregnancies”. One post said: “Dear Mrs Prime Minister, my period is late. Maybe the time has come? I don’t have any income and I will be a single mother.”
Although Law and Justice tabled bills banning abortion in opposition, the move was not in the party’s election manifesto. Government opponents point to a Kaczyński statement in 2007 that “A democratic, law-abiding state cannot force a raped woman to give birth to a child.”
On 13 April, Poland’s political direction was discussed by the European parliament. No European convention prevents Poland from banning abortion. According to Irena Kotowska, professor of demography at the Warsaw School of Economics, it is a smokescreen. “Law and Justice do not care deeply about banning abortion. They are simply adept at manipulation,’’ she said. “[They] know how to raise the temperature to boiling point as a diversionary tactic. We must be mindful of what else is going on while abortion is the hot issue.”
Around 80 people gathered outside Belfast’s High Court last week, to protest the prosection of a young woman who pleaded guilty to buying/using medical abortion pills, and received a suspended sentence.”
When a country bans abortion,” argues Lynn Enright, “it creates horror stories.” The disturbing details of how this young woman was reported to the police – the vindictive housemates [who reported her], the abject desperation – are emerging. They prove that abortion needs to be free, safe and legal… As an Irish woman, I have become accustomed to hearing about the dreadful consequences of our country’s ban on abortion. And yet it never fails to shock and anger and hurt. It never feels less horrible. All the ways in which women suffer when they are denied abortions have played out in front of us, from death to prison sentences….”
On the morning of the protests, Emma Campbell, Vice Chair of Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland was interviewed by the BBC on the arrests. She is on at 10:30am. Another member, Dr. Fiona Bloomer, who is co-organising a conference in Belfast on reproductive justice on 1-2 June, was interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme about this issue as well.
Rowan Tunnicliffe, chair of Amnesty International at Queen’s University, said: “The state is enforcing unwanted pregnancy…
Women from poorer backgrounds are disproportionately affected. Better-off women can afford to travel for treatment. We’re saying that this isn’t right.”
A trades union meeting this week wholeheartedly endorsed the call to stop the prosecutions, reported at @All4choice, which is an important victory.
Goretti Horgan from Alliance for Choice Derry told the Guardian that she is not afraid of being investigated by police for helping other women do the same, despite the young woman being convicted. “I’ll still help Northern Irish women buy pills… “These pills have been available now for 10 years. Not only are none of us particularly worried about this, we have stood outside police stations reminding police we signed letters giving them our names and addresses. We want the law sorted on this. The  law that makes it illegal for women to take these pills is 155 years old, before the light bulb was invented,” she added.
Indeed, 200 women handed themselves in to police this week in protest over the prosecution, claiming that they too had purchased medical abortion pills online and had either used them themselves or given them to someone else to use to induce a safe abortion.
In an interview on the Stephen Nolan Show, a Royal College of Midwives member advised women who seek medical care after using the pills not to tell NHS staff they have done so. She also advised NHS staff not to ask questions, because the law requires them to report any “criminal” act they learn of during the course of a consultation or treatment. @Stephen Nolan via @audioBoom
[We can add to this the assurance that the medications clear out of the system quite quickly and will not be detectable by the time any blood test is likely to be done, if any.]
Social media were also very active. Here are a few of the posts:
– Abortion laws should not be one for the rich and one for the poor. @all4choice #trustwomen
– “We must remember that this issue is about the thousands of women who have to travel.” @all4choice #notacriminal
– Many of the party leaders tonight saying the PPS [public prosecutor] was wrong to pursue prosecution in the abortion pills case. #UTVElection
However, it was announced this week that the trial of a woman who had purchased abortion pills for her teenage daughter about two years ago, who has been awaiting trial since last year, would be heard on 27 April of his month.
A second protest against criminalising abortions will be held in Londonderry later this week.
Solidarity action across Europe
A call for pan-European solidarity led to action by a wide range of abortion rights, women’s rights, human rights, health professional, trades union, and other civil society groups and individuals in 17 European countries, plus Indonesia and USA. Many of these actions expressed solidarity with both the Polish and Northern Irish situations, with statements and placards in national languages, Polish and English. Here are the ones we know of:
Berlin, 9 April
This is a solidarity demonstration with women in Poland, whose rights are currently under attack. It is registered and organized by women from Poland. Come join us, if you care for women’ s rights
Budapest, 10 April
Dublin, 9 April
London, 9 April
“We are strongly against the proposed legislation that will tighten the already strict anti-abortion regulations in Poland. The introduction of this law, which is supported by prime minister Beata Szydło, Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the Polish Episcopate, will mean hell for Polish women.” See dozens of photos by Maciej Wasilewski Photography
Oslo, 9 April
Paris, 10 April
Samsara women’s rights NGO show solidarity with Polish women and call to reclaim choice.
Tbilisi, 8 April
Independent Group of Feminists calls on politicians in Poland to immediately fulfill the demands of the movement “Reclaiming Choice” (Odzyskać Wybór).Independent Group of Feminists calls on politicians in Poland to immediately fulfill the demands of the movement “Reclaiming Choice” (Odzyskać Wybór).Independent Group of Feminists calls on politicians in Poland to immediately fulfill the demands of the movement “Reclaiming Choice” (Odzyskać Wybór).Independent Group of Feminists calls on politicians in Poland to immediately fulfil the demands of the movement “Reclaiming Choice”.
Vienna, 9 April
and New York City, 17 April
Join us to protest the BAN on WOMEN!The proposed bill violates major human rights — including the fundamental right to live and receive proper medical treatment. It stigmatizes women and puts their lives in danger.
Join us to protest the Ban on Women!Join us to protest the BAN on WOMEN!
The bottom line: #trust women #notacriminal