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Thousands of Poles took to the streets — and defeated a draconian antiabortion law

- October 14, 2016

A massive “Black Protest” rocked Poland last week: Tens of thousands of protesters dressed in black braved rain and cold to oppose a draconian new bill that would in effect eliminate legal abortion. Poland’s abortion laws are already the among the most restrictive in Europe, as I explained here in the Monkey Cage in April; the new bill, as explained below, would have allowed no exceptions whatsoever and added possible criminal charges.

To everyone’s surprise, the government of the conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) backed down. By Friday morning the bill was voted down, first in committee and then in the Parliament.

The government first scoffed and then buckled

The proposed abortion bill, sponsored by antiabortion movements and the conservative Ordo Iuris legal institute, would have eliminated abortion in cases of rape, incest and fetal defect. It would make abortion in the case of a threat to a woman’s life even more difficult to procure, and it envisioned prison sentences for women and their doctors. Women who miscarried could have to prove that the miscarriage was not procured, but occurred naturally, for fear of criminal charges.

Civil society quickly mobilized. Protests began in April, when the bill was first introduced. Małgorzata Adamczyk, a public relations specialist, came up with the #czarnyprotest (blackprotest) hashtag for the Oct. 3 protests. Women’s organizations, opposition political parties, and celebrities supported the protest, modeled on the 1975 women’s strike for women’s rights in Iceland that paralyzed the country.

Across 60 major and smaller cities, anywhere from 24,000 to more than 100,000 Poles marched. Numerous school principals, university deans and employers excused absences from classes and jobs. The protest was very broad — it included both men and women and both abortion-rights and antiabortion sympathizers, because existing laws are relatively popular and the new restrictions, especially the prospect of jail terms for women who suffered miscarriages, are seen as too extreme.

PiS representatives initially laughed off the protests. As late as Monday, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski dismissed the protest, saying “let them have their fun.” It denounced the protesters as marginal. Government-run television news gave them only a few minutes of coverage.

Yet within two days, the situation shifted. One government minister announced that the protests “caused us to think and taught us humility.” PiS held an emergency meeting of the parliamentary committee charged with reviewing the bill. The committee voted it down. Three days after the protests, on Oct. 6, the entire Parliament (Sejm) rejected the bill. More than 75 percent of the Parliament, including 80 percent of PiS parliamentarians, voted no. Ordo Iuris representatives angrily denounced the vote as “a mockery.”

Here are the ways that the protesters won

The protests gained popular support and sympathy. Public opinion polls showed most Poles supported the protests. The prime minister and several other government officials backpedaled, stating that the party never sponsored the bill and always had reservations about it. And of course, the Parliament voted it down.

Further, the protests again focused attention on how restrictive Poland’s existing abortion laws are. A 1993 law allows abortions only in cases of rape, incest, grave fetal defects, or threats to the mother’s life. The decision is made by a doctor, not the pregnant woman. As a result, legal abortion is virtually nonexistent.

But the ruling party didn’t lose

The backpedaling was embarrassing, to be sure. But PiS never wanted this bill in the first place. It had painted itself into a corner with a campaign promise last year to give an official reading in parliament to “civic initiatives”: bills put forth by civil society organizations that managed to obtain more than 100,000 signatures.

Ordo Iuris took advantage of this promise soon after PiS won the Oct. 26 election. The party had little choice but to introduce the proposal. But PiS’s support was lukewarm, despite its official antiabortion stance. Abortion is as controversial in Poland as it is elsewhere. By voting down this law, PiS reverted to its preferred status quo.

Nor does PiS have to fear much from this wobble. The government’s public support is very stable, staying between 35 to 38 percent since its election. That’s despite controversy over allegedly anti-democratic actions. The government has packed the Constitutional Tribunal (Poland’s highest court) with its loyalists and tried to limit its powers in ways that the European Union alleges threaten the rule of law; taken control of the state news media; fired state employees, allegedly for political reasons; and centralized and politicized local governance.

Despite the vote, PiS announced that it plans to end “eugenic abortion” (abortion in cases of fetal defects) within “the next three years.” Even as he denounced the bill, party chair Jarosław Kaczyński declared that “we will strive so that even the very difficult pregnancies, where the child will die, highly deformed, still end in birth so that the child can be baptized.”

Parliament is already about to review another civic bill that would abolish the prison terms, but would also eliminate contraception and abortion both.

How did the Roman Catholic Church fare in this skirmish?

The church has consistently supported the elimination of abortion. The episcopate’s chief bioethicist supported the proposal and argued that abortion was too important for politics and ought to be outlawed by fiat. Church representatives criticized the demonstrations as “irresponsible” and “a horrific manifestation of the culture of death.” During the protest, the church emphasized its support for “life from conception to death,” and held masses at the same time as the protest.

But the church also argued against including prison terms for women who had abortions or miscarriages. This gave PiS political cover. Firebrand PiS parliamentarian Krystyna Pawłowicz declared that in making that argument, the “bishops had given their permission” to vote down the bill.

Ironically, then, the church played a key role both in supporting further restrictions and ensuring that this bill would not pass. Now the church is arguing for a new struggle to “unmask pagan and atheist efforts against the gospel of life.”

As my research shows, such public involvement in politics undermines the church’s moral authority. Even religious voters object to direct church influence over votes and governments. This was yet another reminder that the church is deeply involved in Polish politics, even when its influence is not welcome.

The greatest long-term loser, then, may very well be the church itself. For now, however, both the protesters and the government can claim a victory.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor in the department of political science at Stanford University. She is the author of “Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics.”