POLAND – No support for women denied abortion, intention to close independent media and leave the Istanbul Convention

On 3 February 2021, the Polish Justice Ministry was criticised after a spokeswoman outlined plans to support women forced to give birth to fetuses with fatal defects following the near-total ban on abortion. Among the Ministry’s suggestions was for women to get a “personal room” and the “chance to have a cry”. Another was that “such women would be offered ‘special care’, including psychological treatment and ‘advice on what to do next’”. A right-wing party proposed a bill to create hospices for women giving birth to non-viable fetuses. One journalist responded that it reminded him of The Handmaid’s Tale. Another journalist said she would rather women did not have to cry. One MP called on the government to develop “a complex support package for mothers as soon as possible”, yet supposedly work on such measures has been underway for months, including financial help and special wards in hospitals.

One woman MP in the Law and Justice (PiS) party, Anna Sierakowska, warned that any attempts to find “loopholes in order to kill babies due to their state of health [would be] unacceptable”. Another, Iwona Michałek, from PiS’s junior coalition partner Porozumienie, said she now regrets supporting the motion that led to the Constitutional Tribunal’s anti-abortion ruling, as she “didn’t predict the consequences”.

In December 2020, parents of children with serious disabilities interviewed by Notes from Poland, said that the state support available for them to be able to care for their children was “a joke”, “pitiful”, “minimal”, “living off scraps”.

The Polish government are also currently looking to restrict independent Polish media. On 10 February 2021, in response, the Polish independent media suspended their news coverage, and the web pages of the country’s leading news organisations were blank in the morning to protest against a new advertising tax that both broadcasters and publishers say is aimed at undermining freedom of the press and diminishing the viability of the independent media. It seems the government got the idea from Hungary’s right-wing government, which already controls the vast majority of the country’s media, according to Politico. In fact, on 9 February, one of Hungary’s last independent broadcasters was forced to go off the air after its broadcast license was not extended.

On 21 February 2021, Wyborcza.pl reported that the birth rate in Poland is the lowest since 2004. Last year, 477,000 people died, the most since World War II, while only 355,000 babies were born. Why that should be such a problem is unclear, given that the total population is almost 38 million. Unemployment is only about 6%, but then some 20 million Poles are living (and working) abroad. However, the PiS is reportedly preparing a new demographic programme to increase the birth rate. Experts are already predicting it will fail because most people simply cannot afford to have more children. Certainly forcing 1,000 women a year to give birth to babies that will die at or soon after birth won’t increase the birth rate.

At a virtual press conference in Warsaw on 24 February 2021, Polish Women’s Strike reported that the Polish authorities in alliance with religious fundamentalists are starting proceedings to legalise domestic violence in the name of the “family integrity”.

Every year, up to 700 000 women in Poland suffer domestic violence – physical, psychological, sexual and economic. Every year, around 500 women lose their lives as a result of domestic violence. Meanwhile, the ruling party is consistently restricting measures to combat domestic violence by withdrawing funding from aid organisations, making it more difficult to provide sexual education and anti-discrimination education in schools. Now, they are once again resorting to international regulations – by invalidating them – in order to sanction violence against women completely.

They are taking two actions. One is via the discredited Constitutional Tribunal and the other is a civic bill tabled in the Polish parliament by fundamentalist organisations. Both of these, for now, seem to be  about withdrawing Poland from the Istanbul Convention (the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and girls). The longer-term goal, however, is to make way for the UD279 government bill that was frozen – but not dropped – in 2018. The UD279 bill, modelled on legislation introduced in Russia in 2017 – was supposed to remove responsibility for a first act of domestic violence from the offender and abolish the state hotline for victims of violence. It was learned in 2018, however, that there is no legal way for Poland to impose the UD279 bill without renouncing the Istanbul Convention, as the UD297 bill violates Instanbul Convention regulations.

Questioning the legitimacy of international regulations and seeing them as a threat to “family values” and civil liberties is very serious, particularly as it being put forward by the government with the support of the religious fundamentalists’ alliance which is both Polish and international.

At a press conference on 24 February 2021 (in English), Polish Women’s Strike described these activities. They believe this bill is a first step to withdrawing from other international treaties and conventions. They call for international solidarity action against these actions, including from the women’s movement, the European Union and the international community. As European citizens, they are asking the EU for protection.
Watch the press conference here: https://www.facebook.com/ogolnopolskistrajkkobiet.
Contact for the media: press@strajkkobiet.eu

SOURCES: Notes from Poland, by Anna Gmiterek-Zabłocka, 2 December 2020 ; Notes from Poland, 29 January 2021 ; Notes from Poland, 3 February 2021 ; Politico, by Wojciech Kosc, 10 February 2021 ; Wyborcza.pl, 20 February 2021 ; Press release, Polish Women’s Strike, E-mail, 23 February 2021 ; PHOTO by Kacper Pempel, Reuters, in US News & World Report, 26 October 2020