Campaigners believe Catholic priests are exerting political leverage to further restrict women’s reproductive rights
Women protest in Brussels against a proposed near-total ban on abortion in Poland. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Thursday 27 October 2016 07.30 BST
Last modified on Thursday 27 October 2016 08.43 BST
“It’s a strange thing to say about a country in the middle of Europe, in the 21st century, but this is how it works – nearly all politicians here are afraid of the Catholic church,” said Anna Leszczyńska, a women’s rights activist.
Thousands of campaigners marched through Poland’s largest cities on Sunday and Monday to protest against the government’s proposals to further restrict abortion laws in the country.
Campaigners believe the government is at the bidding of the Catholic church which is using its political leverage to push for laws that serve its strict religious dogma.
“Kazimierz Nycz, one of the country’s influential and moderate Polish cardinals, has just said that the church will not accept any compromise regarding abortion. Even though the amount of practising Catholics is decreasing, the church is still a major political power in our country” said Leszczyńska.
This month, protestors were successful in forcing the government to backtrack on proposals that would have meant a blanket ban on abortion. Consequently, leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, are now hoping to tighten Poland’s abortion laws by removing the right for a termination in cases where the foetus has a congenital disorder.
Leszczyńska said: “It’s sick to consider forcing women to give a birth to a fatally damaged child. What monster would even think of such a thing? Pregnancy and giving birth is hard work, pain, risk – and they expect us to suffer all these things? Will they congratulate themselves when we are crying and watching our newly born babies die?”
“I protested, and I’m going to protest in the future. I feel it’s my responsibility. As long as I have the courage to speak, protest and express my anger, I retain my human dignity.”
Polish women vow to step up pressure over abortion restrictions
Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the PiS party, said the government wanted to ensure that even pregnancies involving a child “certain to die, very deformed, still end up in a birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name”. The government would not step back from this aim, he said.
Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with terminations legally permitted only when the life of the foetus is under threat, when there is a grave threat to the health of the mother, and in the instance that the pregnancy arose from rape or incest.
Women who have spoken to the Guardian say they are concerned that those with hardline conservative religious views will persist in lobbying the government until the restrictions are pushed through.
Agata Piotrowska, 34, a scientist, who took part in the protests this month, said she feared the very real chance that the abortion rules would be implemented. “The Catholic church helped the government win the elections. And it is using this legislation, among others, to pay its debt. We have a group of religious radicals hijacking the Polish juridical system to make it reflect extremist beliefs. The new law will not decrease the number of abortions, and it will not save any lives. It will only make abortion more costly and more dangerous, and lead a score of women, and possibly doctors, to jail.”
The election pitch of PiS was based on Polish nationalism, Catholicism and promises to help poorer Poles. Last year 40% of women backed PiS compared to 38% of the wider population.
Elżbieta, 42, who lives in Wroclaw, the largest city in western Poland, said that despite campaign promises, anti-abortion proposals risked causing the most harm to those they were pledging to help most.
“It is tolerable enough if you have a good income, as you can take a short trip to Germany or Slovakia and terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But if you are poor, very young, abused and uneducated, you are nothing. The government will force you to give birth to a child conceived in rape, force you to give birth to the severely damaged foetus, they even force you to die,” she said.
’It’s about basic dignity’: six women on protesting Poland’s anti-abortion proposal
A total ban of the morning-after pill has been proposed by the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements, with the support of an MP from a rightwing faction. Under the proposals anyone caught selling or distributing emergency contraception could be imprisoned for up to two years.
“People, but most of all politicians, are afraid to stand against priests,” said Elżbieta. “The church introduced the concept of ‘child conceived’ to the common consciousness, which demands control over women, their lives and their sexuality. They want to decide when and how many children we should have by banning access to both contraception and abortion. Don’t be fooled by how European our country seems on the outside.”
Iwona, 26, who works in finance in Gdynia, a city in northern Poland, took part in the demonstrations this month. She said the country had been increasingly divided since the last election. “I do not deny the church to have their opinion and ask Catholics to follow their guidelines, but this should be reserved only for people who decide to do so and not to the whole society.”
Legislation drafted in October this year by the hardline conservative advocacy group Ordo Iuris and submitted by the Stop Abortion coalition as a citizens’ initiative, has been the latest bill to restrict women’s reproductive rights.
A separate, PiS-sponsored bill restricting IVF (in vitro fertilisation), which would make it illegal to freeze embryos and allow women to fertilise only one embryo at a time, was passed to the parliamentary committee stage in September.