Poland: Protests for abortion rights target right-wing government

November 18, 2020
Protest against abortion restrictions in Bielsko Biala, Poland this month. Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC by SA 4.0.

Huge demonstrations have unfolded in Poland since October 22, when the Constitutional Court decided to ban abortion in almost all cases.

The movement, launched by women and youth, which different sectors of society have joined, has become a catalyst for people’s anger at the ultraconservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) government. Proof of that widespread anger came on November 6, when more than 80,000 people demonstrated.

Philippe Alcoy interviewed Dagmara Zawistowska-Toczek, a teacher in the city of Gdansk, who is active in the movement.

For more than two weeks Poles have been demonstrating across the country against additional restrictions on the right to abortion. How have these actions been organised?

All of these demonstrations in Poland are spontaneous direct actions, coming from below, without any central coordination or leader. The protests emerged spontaneously upon the Constitution Court announcing its verdict on abortion on October 22.

People just post events on Facebook, often young women, students, people in the neighbourhood, artists, or social activists of a given location. For example, the Committee of Family Protests launched a demonstration in Sopot, and cultural organisations or even music groups announce waves of Techno Blocks in different cities (that is, marches carried out to the beat of techno music).

Different groups of demonstrators get together, unite and march peaceably together. In Gdansk, for example, the youth strike was the idea of a teenage activist who urged pupils from the city’s schools to demonstrate. They agreed on a starting time (at 4pm, because from 8am until then, minors younger than 16 cannot be on their own without parental permission) and a place (City Hall, across from the Kuratorium, the office that oversees teachers), they selected speakers and the itinerary for the procession, and informed the local media and elected officials.

The situation is similar in small towns and in the capital. An informal, non-partisan social movement called National Women’s Strike is participating in the demonstrations; it first emerged during the demonstrations of 2016, and its main activists are Marta Lempart and Natalia Pancewitz.

We, women dressed in black, along with our husbands, sons, brothers and others, are demonstrating against the violations of women’s rights and demanding the end of the PiS government. It’s a wonderful kind of direct democracy for a society shocked and aggrieved during this crisis.

Even though the matter that triggered the demonstrations was the attacks on abortion rights, how do you explain the fact that this movement has become a vehicle for rejecting the government’s whole political agenda?

There are many reasons for this forceful opposition to the Law and Justice government’s politics, and the process that has led to this state of things is something you can observe going back many years. Yet the breadth of these demonstrations can be surprising. It’s like a tsunami.

The immediate factor is certainly the Polish people’s disappointment after the presidential elections of this summer. The Poles finally mobilised: the opposition in the Senate stopped the elections because of the pandemic, and then we had a high turnout rate of more than 68% in spite of the coronavirus.

[PiS leader, Jaroslaw] Kaczyński’s opponent, the charismatic young governor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski (of the Civic Platform) had almost no chance but still obtained 48.97% of the vote (against Kaczyński’s puppet Duda, who got 51.03%).

The second factor is the absurd policy of this government during the pandemic: the ministers and technocrats (Kaczyński) made stupid, economically and socially short-sighted decisions, and were generally incoherent. Today, dying Poles are paying the price and the anger is enormous.

The government wasted the summer months and instead of preparing the schools for online teaching and the health services for saving infected people, they spent all their time on the presidential election campaign. Teachers don’t have computers at school, they have no uniform educational platform — they’re still having to improvise — doctors don’t have supplies or places to work in the hospitals, there aren’t enough doctors and nurses to make the respirators work — people are asking why all this still hasn’t been taken care of for several months.

We have had one scandal after another involving the purchase of masks and medical supplies — the government paid PLN 200 million [AU$72.5 million] to a former arms dealer for 1200 respirators that were never delivered — we’ve had politicians ostentatiously violating the restrictions imposed on everyone else, we’ve had censorship of the media: this has become our everyday in Poland.

The third factor behind the protest movement is the way that doctors and medical services have been treated. In 2017, resident physicians went on strike — there was even a hunger strike — and then again in 2019, and they revealed the disastrous state of health care in Poland, since 10% of doctors are over 70 [years of age] and the young ones go abroad.

Right now while doctors and nurses are fighting heroically for each life, while ambulances are waiting for six hours outside the hospitals and people are dying there, the Deputy Prime Minister [Jacek] Sasin declares publicly at the beginning of October that everything is the doctors’ fault because some of them do not want to work during the epidemic.

The fourth factor is the treatment of women and minorities, sexual minorities for example. When the Diet rejected the proposed law to “Save Women” and instead took up once again the proposal to “Stop Abortion” we went out into the streets with umbrellas and coat hangers in about 150 cities.

We protested on a smaller scale when, in July of the same year, Justice Minister [Zbigniew] Ziobro declared that we are preparing to leave the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of, and struggle with, domestic violence and violence against women, and when Prime Minister [Mateusz] Morawiecki submitted to the Constitutional Court a motion to examine the Convention’s compatibility with the Polish constitution — a motion taken up by PiS judges.

One symbolic aspect of this movement is the discontent expressed toward the Catholic Church, Poland being one of the most heavily Catholic countries in the European Union. Why is there such resistance to the Church?

The claim that Poland is the most Catholic country is no longer valid. Statistics may show that about 39 million people here have been baptised, but that has nothing to do with real religious practice; Church reports record only 20%, that is to say around 7.8 million, being admitted to communion every year.

On the one hand, more and more Poles are unbelievers or very critical toward the Church, while on the other hand, the wiser and more sensible priests also criticise the Church. Why? Poles have had enough of seeing the Church mix politics, education, and the most important question: the arrogance and hypocrisy of the paedophilia scandals.

Since the release of two important documentaries by the Siekielski brothers, Don’t Tell Anyone (2019), and Playing Hide and Seek (May 2020), the reaction of the Catholic Church in Poland has unfortunately been rather limited.

The victims and society in general are still waiting for the criminals in clerical collars to be punished.

Those priests who criticise the Church end up either quitting or being forbidden from preaching, while those who have molested children for years will go on working in schools, and in any case are still preaching to this day, leading children in prayer and so forth.

Some have avowed that certain bishops were protecting paedophile priests and just shifting them to other parishes whenever their victims reported their crimes, and that they were able to go on doing the same things to other children.

That is why for Poles today, the Church no longer symbolises faith but rather falsehood and greed — buying up priceless real estate while charging money for priestly services — it also represents conservative indoctrination in the school system. Add to that the Church’s fundamentalist views on the role of women and its attitude toward sexual minorities.

No one destroys churches during these demonstrations, not one priest has been attacked, all that has happened is silent protest in church: people sitting on the altar, going to mass in a Handmaid’s Tale costume, or standing in front of the sign of the episcopal curia — and for the ultra-Catholics, that’s an attack.

Since Kaczyński made his speech [on October 27], demonstrators have even stayed away from churches and Christian symbols entirely, but the Church will still have to face this crisis.

Kaczyński, the real strongman in the country, urged his followers to ״protect the churches״. To the point: What is the role of the extreme right at present?

Poles are interpreting Kaczyński’s speech as a sign of weakness and even desperation, something that the state of the right-wing political scene over the last few months confirms. Nevertheless, the Court’s verdict on abortion is perceived as an attempt, on Kaczyński’s part, to recapture the support of the conservative members of the PiS, and of the Church’s electorate, but that bomb has blown up in Kaczyński’s face.

Today, the United Right [conservative political alliance] has ranged against it, not only the opposition and the liberal and left-wing milieux, but also doctors, teachers, youth and even farmers.

It is interesting to note that the young leaders of the extreme right are now subject to the same general hostility, and in parliament they have had to separate themselves from the government’s policies in order to retain a remnant of their support. This is even after the recent success of their candidate [Krzysztof] Bosak, of the [far-right, neo-fascist] Confederation, getting increased support in the first round of the elections.

What about the role of youth in this movement?

Women and the youth may well be the two groups in Polish society most wounded right now by the policies of the right-wing government. Teenagers born in the years 2003–05 have fallen victim to an educational reform policy that is worse than useless to them.

I have been working at different schools for 20 years and have never seen teenagers so politically conscious and prepared for action. After the parliamentary elections of 2019, when the PiS won once again, they no longer shy away from the political parties’ declarations, [and] they have been working to help teachers on strike.

These young people have naturally become the motive force behind these protests.

[Abridged from LeftEast. Originally published in Revolution Permanente. Translated from the French by William Coker.]

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