POLAND –  “I think, I feel, I decide,” one of the signature slogans of the protests

On 2 December, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said it was interceding in the matter of Polish hospitals applying the ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal banning abortions on the grounds of fetal damage. The Foundation said there was no legal basis to deny women a pregnancy termination because the ruling has not yet been officially published.

Helsinki Foundation lawyer, Jaroslaw Jagura, said: “The Foundation declares its readiness to grant legal aid to women who receive a refusal of treatment in such a situation.” They also said that doctors’ fear of accountability for terminating a pregnancy should not be a justification for refusing abortion on the grounds of fetal damage, and that there are no grounds to hold doctors criminally liable. They also expressed concerns about who was entitled to sit on the Constitutional Tribunal that made the anti-abortion ruling, in relation to standards of independence.

Yet on 7 December, Julia Przylebska, President of the Constitutional Tribunal, defended their abortion ruling, saying that given the Constitution, the Tribunal could not have reached a different judgement. She told Sieci, a weekly news magazine, that the only thing that mattered to the Tribunal was the Constitution, and the legal knowledge and conscience of its judges.

Meanwhile, on 17 November it was reported in LRT English that Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, Speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament, and Gabrielius Landsbergis, leader of the conservative Homeland Union, were due to meet Polish President Duda in Vilnius. Both said they would discuss this issue with him. So quite some polite effort is being made in Europe to influence what is happening. Without apparent success, however, from a rights perspective.

A New York Times report, also on 7 December, based on talking to young protestors, argues that in Poland, in addition to the abortion ban, “something deeper is going on, and has been building for years… making an uprising feel inevitable”. “There is pressure to go to every single protest, even if you are totally exhausted and you don’t have energy to work, to go to school,” said one 15-year-old from Warsaw, a member of a newly active younger generation that has flocked to the protests and shocked the government. It is therefore worrying that very young protestors, including 14- and 15-year-old adolescents, are being targeted by police and threatened by teachers for being involved.

“What is underway in Poland is a forceful renegotiation of the foundations of government power, and the back-room deals, almost exclusively among men, that built them. Women’s demands for reproductive freedom and their calls for greater equality threaten to upend a power structure that has been in place since the fall of Communism,” when “the Catholic church gave crucial support to the pro-democracy movement.” That enabled a smoother transition to democracy, but it “left the church deeply embedded in politics and able to insist that the new government legislate the church’s position on social issues.” Efforts to restrict abortion began from that moment.

In the meantime, Polish women have gained economic and social power. “The gender wage gap for median earners in Poland is only 10%, one of the smallest differentials among OECD countries. Forty-three percent of young women earn university degrees, compared with only 29% of young men. When Poland joined the European Union, that brought new opportunities to work and travel in more secular countries.” Hence, conservative forces are increasingly challenged. In May 2019, the documentary Tell No One drew public attention to the Polish church’s history of protecting priests who had raped and molested children. It has had over 24 million views.

There will be a protest on 13 December in Warsaw from 12 noon, with the theme: “We’re now marching for everything.

SOURCES: The First News, 7 December 2020 ; The First News, 2 December 2020 ; New York Times, by Amanda Taub, Anatol Magdziarz, 7 December 2020 ; LRT English, by Jūratė Skėrytė, BNS,17 November 2020 ;  Reports from activists ; PHOTO: by Agata Grzybowska/AP, in APNews, 2 December 2020 ; see also Euronews, 24 November 2020 ; New Europe, by Eliza Rutynowska, Elena Crespi, 4 November 2020 ; Civicus, 24 November 2020