Women demand a real choice

Demonstrators rally against the Polish government's threatened total ban on abortions, October 2016, photo by Alternatywa Socjalistyczna

Demonstrators rally against the Polish government’s threatened total ban on abortions, October 2016, photo by Alternatywa Socjalistyczna   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

On 6 October women in Poland won a crucial victory as proposed legislation to impose a near-total ban on abortion was overwhelmingly defeated, writes Tessa Warrington.

An estimated 140,000 women in over 60 cities took part in the national ‘women’s strike’ opposing the ban on Monday 3 October. As a direct result of this mass movement, the Polish parliament, having initially voted to consider the proposed ban, has now been forced back, voting 352-58 against it.

This climbdown represents the first major setback for the ruling (in coalition) conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, proving that mass action can take on governments and win.

However, even before the ban Poland already had one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe. Abortion is only permitted in the case of incest, rape, a serious threat to the health of the mother, or deformation of the foetus.

In the following article Paul Newbury of Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (CWI in Poland) describes the strike action and charts the way forward for the pro-choice movement in Poland.

Members of Alternatywa Socjalistyczna, the Socialist Party's sister party in Poland, join the protest against banning abortion, October 2016, photo by Alternatywa Socjalistyczna

Members of Alternatywa Socjalistyczna, the Socialist Party’s sister party in Poland, join the protest against banning abortion, October 2016, photo by Alternatywa Socjalistyczna   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Plans to impose a total ban on abortion have sparked a massive explosion of anger in Poland. On Monday 3 October a strike of Polish women was called, inspired by the example of Icelandic women, who held a nationwide strike in 1975.

The 3 October protests were easily the biggest ever protests in defence of abortion rights in Poland, far exceeding those in 1993 when the current ban on abortion was introduced.

The first wave of the movement started in spring 2016 with the announcement that a right-wing pressure group had collected over 100,000 signatures (finally they collected 400,000), required to submit a draft law to the Polish parliament which would impose a total ban on abortion. Violating it could result in punishing women with up to three years in prison.

The barbarity of the proposals is illustrated by the fact that all miscarriages would be treated as suspected abortions and would be subject to criminal investigation.

Poland already has one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe. Moreover, abortion is often prevented by doctors who exploit the so-called ‘conscience clause’ and impose their own religious beliefs on patients by refusing vital treatment.

This law was forced through at the beginning of the 1990s, when Poland was undergoing capitalist restoration: an economic and social counter-revolution alongside a few democratic reforms.

But the sham of the democratic reforms is shown by the fact that despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of society (over 70% of the population was against an abortion ban and supported abortion for “social reasons”, which basically meant abortion on demand) the anti-abortion law was forced through.

At the same time, religion was introduced in schools and the concordat was signed, which gave the church enormous material and political privileges. Politicians of all the parties called this a ‘compromise’. However, it is not a compromise but a national disgrace and it created a hell for women.

Spontaneous movement

In response to the proposed ban this spring, a massive spontaneous movement was created on social networks. This led to a series of demonstrations around the country, each involving several thousand protesters.

One of the initiatives focused on collecting over 100,000 signatures in order to submit a “citizen’s initiative” draft law that would liberalise the abortion law, allowing abortion regardless of the reason for up to 12 weeks.

Despite many voices within the movement calling only for the defence of the current, extremely restrictive law, the idea of a citizen’s initiative was finally embraced by the wider movement, which managed to collect over 250,000 signatures and present its draft law to parliament.

At the end of September both the draft laws were presented to parliament on the same day.

A second wave of struggle began with so-called ‘Black Protests’ (Czarny Protest) which were organised all over the country. Men and women dressed in black to mourn the death of women’s rights.

Demonstrations were held in many towns and people posted photos of themselves dressed in black on social networks with the hashtag #CzarnyProtest and #BlackProtest.

Predictably, parliament rejected the draft law liberalising abortion rights, while allowing the draft law introducing a total abortion ban to go through to the committee stage. At the same time it was announced that in vitro fertility (IVF) treatment may be banned, as well as access to emergency contraception.

This unleashed widespread anger at the arrogance and contempt that politicians and the church have for women and activated wider layers to get involved in protests than previously.

Women’s strike

Around this time the idea was raised of organising a strike of women. This idea came from within the movement by women who had no previous trade union or strike experience.

However, due to the anti-trade union laws and the difficulty of organising a legal strike, even by a trade union, women were not encouraged to actually strike but rather to take a day off work on what was nicknamed Czarny poniedzialek (Back Monday).

Many women were prevented from taking part in this strike because they have poor work contracts and have no right to a day off on demand. For example, the Lidl supermarket chain threatened to sack staff who took a day off on Monday.

Finally, on the day of the strike, OPZZ (one of the three major trade union federations) expressed its support and pledged to defend its members from victimisation, should they decide to participate in the protest. Thanks to this, many public administration workers, particularly in local government, were able to strike.

A number of theatres and small businesses announced they would close that day to allow their staff to participate. Many more women, who had no option but to work, dressed in black to express their support for the strike.

The support of OPZZ probably also emboldened many teachers, who organised group photographs with pupils – all dressed in black. In many high schools, school students organised their own strikes, leaving school during the first lesson, often with the support of their teachers. There were some reports of young women being threatened by groups of men and spat on for participating in the strike.

In Warsaw, several thousand gathered early in the morning outside the offices of the ruling party, Law and Justice. Later in the afternoon they marched in the rain through the city centre to Castle Square, where roughly 50,000 people gathered – predominantly young women, students and school students. There was a very angry, lively mood and lots of home-made placards.

Unfortunately, the speeches were dominated by celebrities and mainstream political parties, such as the liberal party, Nowoczesna, and the pro-liberal democracy movement, KOD.

Both of these are political organisations that have jumped onto the bandwagon. They have opposed calling for abortion on demand, arguing that the movement should limit itself to defending the current anti-abortion law.

Scandalously, representatives of feminist organisations and pro-abortion groups were not given a platform. Fortunately, the organisers had only planned for a demonstration of about 5,000, so most people could not hear the speeches, anyway!

After some time, protesters started to shout that they should march on parliament, and soon the sea of umbrellas moved off, leaving the organisers behind.

The march was now illegal, but police wisely decided to allow it to continue, only policing the crossroads as protesters marched through the city centre, choosing their own route and stopping all the traffic during the rush hour.

Around 10,000 gathered outside parliament in the rain. There were no speakers, but the mood was loud and angry. There were rumours that several thousand protesters marched to Teatr Polski, the theatre where Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling party Law and Justice, was having a meeting.

The church reacted to the strike of Polish women and Black Protest by condemning it as a ‘carnival of the devil’, showing how out of touch it is with reality.

What now?

Due to the scale of the movement, Law and Justice has reacted by announcing that it will prepare its own compromise draft law, which will probably allow abortion in the case of rape and a threat to the life of the woman, but not in the case of a deformity of the foetus.

This, of course, is not a compromise at all, but represents a further tightening of the ban and is completely unacceptable. However, it shows that the government is beginning to feel the pressure.

This is a clear signal that the pressure must be maintained and the struggle for abortion rights must continue. However, Nowoczesna and Civic Platform (the previous ruling party), aided by KOD, are attempting to take political control and derail the movement.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to introduce a ‘no logo’ policy that bans all political organisations from intervening. This will allow the compromised politicians in through the back door, while preventing smaller, more radical organisations from being able to get across their ideas and proposals for the movement.

The strike of Polish women on Black Monday was the high point, but it has unleashed new forces that have, so far, not been present in the movement: thousands of young angry women who are only just entering into struggle. An immediate task of the movement is to help them get organised.

What is lacking is democratic structures on the ground at a local level, involving activists from all the different initiatives that have sprung up. Such local democratic committees should link up on a national level to coordinate activities and plan the next major action. There should be full democratic accountability of all national representatives of such committees.

Only a clear programme can achieve victory. We need to explain the need for the right to free, safe abortion on demand, which will save the lives of numerous women. This should be linked to the need to fight for decent, good quality, free healthcare provided by well-paid professionals and not religious fanatics who block treatment.

Real choice

Many unwanted pregnancies can be avoided if contraception is made more easily accessible. Nowadays contraception is too costly for many young women.

Meanwhile, under-18s can only visit a gynaecologist with their parents’ consent, which prevents them from being able to get a prescription for contraception. That is why we demand universal access to free contraception. We also demand sexual education instead of religion taught in school by Catholic priests and nuns.

Above all, women want a real choice – not only whether to have a child or not, but also to have a child when they want to have one. That is why we support free IVF fertility treatment, but also a guaranteed place in free public crèches, and nursery schools for every child.

But wider social and economic issues also affect a woman’s choice. It is necessary to fight for cheap good quality, state-owned social housing and a decent minimum wage, as well as job security. All poor working contracts should be abolished and replaced with permanent job contracts, so that becoming pregnant will not mean losing your job.

Fighting for such a change will require linking up with the working class organised in the trade unions. The movement should also reach out to public administration workers and health workers who supported Black Monday’s strike.

Such a struggle will also mean a confrontation with the economic system, capitalism, which is incapable of guaranteeing decent homes, jobs and rights for ordinary people.

  • Full article can be read on socialistworld.net