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Victory on abortion has empowered Polish women

Friday 7 October 2016, by siawi3

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/06/victory-abortion-rights-empowered-polish-women?CMP=share_btn_fb

This victory on abortion has empowered Polish women – we’ll never be the same

Krystyna Kacpura

After our Warsaw protest, something has snapped in us. Our struggle with politicians and the church isn’t over, but we’ll keep fighting for our right to choose

Pro-choice protesters in Warsaw on 3 October. ‘The government did not expect such huge protests … In the last week, 7 million women were on strike all over Poland.’ Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Thursday 6 October 2016 14.32 BST
Last modified on Thursday 6 October 2016 16.56 BST

They call us Nazis and say that we are no better than Hitler because we think a woman should have be able to choose whether she gives birth to a seriously sick child – but we are used to such comparisons. They say these things about us because they are frightened. The government of Poland did not expect such huge protests against its proposed ban on abortion. In the last week, 7 million women were on strike all over Poland to protest against the draconian law and pushed the government to back down.
Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests

In Warsaw our protests, involving over 30,000 people, locked the city down. I was trembling at the sight of all these women. I have worked in reproductive rights in Poland for 25 years, and we used to be happy if 200 women attended our protests.

At first politicians ignored us, then they enraged us with their words. The foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said: “Let them have fun. They should go ahead if they think there are no bigger problems in Poland … We expect serious debate on questions of life, death and birth. We do not expect happenings, dressing in costumes and creating artificial problems.”

These words mobilised even more women. I have never seen such huge protests. Something snapped in Polish women; we are empowered and we won’t stop. The protests were so spontaneous: with barely a few days’ notice thousands of women were walking out of work, and if they couldn’t get the day off, many told me, they said to their bosses they would not return because they could not work alongside people who did not believe in their rights.

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Poland signals U-turn on total abortion ban after protests

On Saturday, at one of the protests, I gave a speech to the crowd that was directed at Polish gynaecologists. “Where are you?” I asked. “Why don’t you care about your patients? We need to rely on you, but instead we are afraid of you. We are afraid of your ‘conscientious objections’, we are afraid that you won’t tell us the truth when you are examining us or giving us blood-test results. Break your silence. We are your patients and we need you to support our health.”

Afterwards I received several anonymous messages from gynaecologists telling me that they will help Polish women, promising that they will work in their regions to tell the ruling party the truth about the real threat to women’s health if a ban on abortion was passed. I have been seeking this kind of support for years, there are maybe five or 10 doctors in the whole of Poland who will speak out for women’s rights, so for me this was a personal victory.

Although the Catholic church is seemingly silent in Poland, we know it was the bishops who also rejected the stop abortion law, despite helping to instigate it in the first place. They are threatened, and now they say they “don’t want women to be punished”. Women make up the majority of the people who attend mass, who give money. Many people have left the church lately.

Warsaw abortion rights protesters

‘In Warsaw our protests, involving over 30,000 people, locked the city down. I have worked in reproductive rights in Poland for 25 years, and we used to be happy if 200 women attended our protests.’ Photograph: Janek Skarżyński/AFP/Getty Images

The rejection of the proposed law, which would make all abortions illegal – even in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk, with prison terms of up to five years for women seeking abortion and doctors who perform them – is only a small victory in the ongoing battle for women’s reproductive rights. We are expecting the church and the ruling party to prepare a compromise which would allow abortion when a woman has been raped, or there is a direct threat to her life, but they will seek to withdraw access to legal abortion if the fetus is damaged.

We want women to be free to make a decision on whether she gives birth to a seriously sick child herself. It is her right to choose, and if she does choose to have the child we advocate that she should be supported economically and psychologically, but all women should not be pushed to give birth in such circumstances because the politicians have ruled it so.

At the protests I spoke to many women and girls, young and old, and talked to them about how we are second-class citizens in our country. That the existing law is restrictive on paper, but even more so in practice. We don’t have adequate sex education, we don’t have access to modern contraception and we barely have access to legal abortion. In southern Poland nearly all doctors have signed conscientious objections making access to legal abortion all but impossible.

So our fight must continue. There is such solidarity among Polish women right now that we will take our fight to the European level and find a space to seek protection under EU law. We have international backing, and I have never been so proud of all the empowered, European, Polish women. We will never be the same again.