This Is What Happens To Women's Rights When The Far Right Takes Over
Limits on contraception, end of domestic violence protection, and an ongoing push to ban abortion — and that's just the start.
WARSAW, Poland — It was the first Monday in October, which is to say that it was gray, and gross. So they brought umbrellas.
Not just in Warsaw. In Katowice, Lodz, Gdansk, and Krakow, and tiny villages between. So many thousands of umbrellas, so many very angry women.
“People were just absolutely fucking furious,” Zoska Marcinek said.
It was a kind of anger Marcinek had never seen before, even under Poland’s new right-wing government. A 23-year-old bartender, Marcinek says she’d been a loyal lefty “couch activist,” sticking to the passive engagement of showing up, sometimes, at lectures, debates, or demonstrations. But then the government got serious about changing the country’s abortion law, and Marcinek decided to do what activists had been doing a lot recently: Yelling on the streets. Usually, a good protest got a couple hundred people and lasted an hour or two.
They were hoping for more people given the severity of the bill they were protesting: Poland’s parliament looked ready to approve an abortion ban that threatened doctors — and mothers — with jail time.
The authors of the bill wanted to end what they saw as the loopholes that let women get abortions in just three situations: rape or incest, when the mother’s life is in danger, or when a fetus is diagnosed with a “severe and irreversible impairment” that’s likely to be fatal. Even then, it’s essentially impossible to actually get an abortion in this deeply Catholic country, according to doctors, women’s health advocates, and lawyers, and most women end up going abroad.
It’s not the first time conservatives had tried to push a ban, but this time was different. The far-right Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym PiS (“peace”), was single-handedly running the country. It was the first time since the fall of communism, in 1989, that any party had enough support to govern without a coalition. With the power and efficiency of single-party rule, PiS began to dismantle basic institutions: It nationalized the public media, moved to overturn judicial procedures, and expanded secret state surveillance.
But when it came to something as sensitive as changing the abortion law, a democratic imprimatur was important. So conservative groups joined forces, consulted with PiS, and brought the ban to legislators as a “citizens’ initiative” — not the pet project of one parliamentarian but an idea backed by nearly half a million signatures, most of them collected after Sunday mass.
On the day it was introduced, it seemed like a slam dunk. Legislators not only embraced the ban by moving it forward for a vote; they also rejected a more liberal citizens’ initiative, with 200,000 signatures, for unrestricted access to abortion in the first trimester. By rejecting that and then moving forward with the ban, there was no doubt where Parliament stood.
“They’re really concerned about all the issues connected to women’s vaginas.”
Immediately, women started organizing. Facebook invitations moved around like chain letters, linking people who’d never heard of each other in action. No organization coordinated their campaign, and no one knew how many people would join in. They kept it simple: On Monday, Oct. 3, wear black to protest the abortion ban. And, if you could, go on strike. Leave your desk or your classroom or your kitchen and come out in the streets and make some noise.
Veteran protesters hoped they might draw a couple thousand people out on the streets of Warsaw over the course of the day. Government officials scoffed at the idea before it even began. “Let them play,” Poland’s foreign minister said.
Play they did. An estimated 30,000 women flooded the streets of the capital, forcing buses and cars into U-turns. “The whole day, Warsaw was blocked,” remembered Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a non-governmental organization in Warsaw.
The whole day, it also rained, and the bad weather made the protest iconic: Bird's-eye view photographs show a city utterly overtaken by umbrellas. Social media showed the same scene repeating in city after city — thousands and thousands of women striking in the streets, thousands more, in their offices or homes, wearing black in solidarity. In one way or another, an estimated 6 million people across the country joined the Black Protests.
The crowds took the government by surprise. The next day, Poland’s prime minister distanced the ruling party from the bill, and two days after that, the ban was defeated by a hefty margin.
But this was no single-issue lobbying project. The carefully cultivated abortion ban was simply the most aggressive move in a systematic attack against women’s rights — an attack that’s been in the works for years and that’s become emblematic of Poland’s march ever further right, and ever further away from Europe.
“We won the battle,” said Monika Wielichowska, a Polish parliamentarian who opposed the bill, “but it seems not the war. The war continues.”
If you’re a woman in Poland, the state is coming for you.
That’s how it feels to feminists, anyway. There’s another version of the abortion ban wending through Parliament in a less direct fashion, and there's moves to ban hormonal contraception, which is what most Polish women use. PiS has introduced a bill to make emergency contraception prescription-only, which would essentially make it inaccessible. And conservatives remain committed to ending in vitro fertilization. Marta Szostak, who coordinates a reproductive rights alliance called ASTRA, sums it up simply: “They’re really concerned about all the issues connected to women’s vaginas.”
Where the ban didn’t work, the government is hoping to bribe women out of abortions: In November, Poland passed a bill called For Life that gives 4,000 zloty — roughly $1,000 — to women who choose to keep a risky pregnancy the law would let them end. There is a catch, though: The baby has to be born alive. If it’s stillborn, or if it naturally doesn’t make it to term, there’s no payout. (It also remains unclear exactly where the funds to pay women are coming from.)
The bill was hard to fight. “Saying that people should not receive money if they have a child with disabilities — that’s a difficult position to argue,” said Draginja Nadazdin, country director of Amnesty International.
The new law takes a soft touch to the most heated part of Poland’s abortion debate: whether women should be allowed to abort “imperfect” pregnancies. Abortion opponents call this part of the law the “eugenic exception,” which elicits memories of Poland’s painful past: Eugenics was a pseudoscience, developed in the United States and Great Britain, that supposed a racial hierarchy among the world’s populations. It helped underpin the Nazi belief in “Aryan” superiority, a belief that led to a mass sterilization campaign in the early days of Nazism and, eventually, to the murder of “inferior peoples,” especially Jews, in the Nazi death camps of eastern Poland.
Poles and other Slavic peoples were deemed “inferior” in the Nazi racial hierarchy — and in Nazi reproductive law. In German-occupied Poland, abortion remained off-limits but officials were formally advised to tolerate the procedure.
So for conservative Poles, aborting a fetus because of medical abnormality — even one so serious that the pregnancy is likely to end in miscarriage or the baby is unlikely to live more than a few days — echoes Nazism, a parallel some extreme groups pair with gruesome photos in their anti-abortion campaigns.
Compared to Hitler, almost anything sounds better — especially a government that says it wants to give women money to help with their “undesirable” pregnancies. Women’s activists decided the best approach to the For Life cash payments law was old-fashioned letter-writing. “We wrote a statement and sent it to parliamentarians, but there was no massive opposition in front of the Parliament building,” said Kacpura, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “We decided Polish women are clever enough not to agree to this ‘solution.’”
The Polish state’s assault on women’s rights reaches far beyond reproductive health. The ruling party is also dismantling the systems that help victims of domestic violence. In January 2016, only two months after PiS took over the government, the justice ministry cut funding to nonprofit organizations that help domestic violence victims — because, the ministry said, they discriminated against men. "Because the group of victims is narrowed to women only, your offer is [too] limited,” the ministry explained in a letter to one women’s organization obtained by BuzzFeed News.
One group that continued to receive ministry support, on the other hand, is Lex Nostra, a victims’ assistance group whose website makes it sound more like a men’s rights project. Its founder, Maciej Lisowski, has used the site to accuse a 17-year-old gang-rape survivor of making up the charges to get back at her ex-boyfriend and to insist that domestic violence victims invent stories of abuse to get better alimony settlements.
Poland’s ombudsman, who is an independent watchdog, wrote a four-page letter asking the justice ministry for an explanation of the funding cut. The letter pointed out that domestic violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, according to the country’s own police statistics, and that Poland is bound by a European treaty called the Istanbul Convention, an anti-domestic violence treaty that obligates states to help female victims of family violence.
The ministry was deaf to the first argument. “They just said that help and support should be addressed to every victim of violence or crime. They did not understand that a women’s rights center cannot run a shelter for domestic violence victims that will also receive men,” said Sylwia Spurek, the deputy ombudsman. “It’s irrational.”
Meanwhile, the government is dead set against that treaty. PiS wants to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention; the justice ministry has quietly begun that process, but declined to reply to questions from Spurek’s office about how far along it is. If successful, lawyers say it would mark the first time a European country has withdrawn from a human rights treaty.
Underpinning the ministry’s refusal of funds is a long-brewing battle against the idea of — the very word — “gender.” In Polish, the word sounds strange. “It’s not a word that is even translated,” Spurek said. “We just say ‘gender’ without the English accent.”
It was a word most Poles had never heard before 2012, when the country started debating whether to sign the Istanbul Convention. The word’s literal foreignness made it easy for conservatives to paint gender as an alien idea that would destroy Polish values. “There was a huge discussion … on the conservative side that gender is going to destroy traditional families, that gender means in kindergarten they will tell your boy that he should wear a skirt,” said Agnieszka Wisniewska, editor of the web magazine of the left-leaning institute Krytyka Polityczna. “That’s what they understood as gender: Every boy will wear skirts.”
The word’s literal foreignness made it easy for conservatives to paint gender as an alien idea that would destroy Polish values.
The debate reached a fever pitch in 2015. That’s when three important things happened: Poland ratified the Istanbul Convention. The former government, in what would be one of its final acts, appointed a deputy ombudsman, a lawyer who previously worked as a “gender consultant.” And the whole year long, PiS was campaigning on a nationalist platform that valorized “traditional Polish values.”
Then PiS candidate Andrzej Duda went from dark horse to newly elected president in just three months. One of his first acts in office was vetoing a bill that would’ve made it easier for people to legally change their gender. Duda wasn’t just afraid that boys might decide to wear skirts, creating a “loophole” for same-sex marriage. He was afraid people in skirts might decide to say they were boys, creating “a formal possibility of a man giving birth.”
Two weeks after Duda vetoed the gender bill, PiS swept the parliamentary elections and took single-party control of the government.
If you need a legal abortion in Poland, you’ll have to fill out three separate forms and, in some hospitals, you’ll be asked to have your husband sign them, even though that’s not actually required by law. If you’ve been raped, first you’ll need your rape certified by the police, and then you’ll need a referral from a prosecutor. After that, you can go to the gynecologist, who will also have to affirm, based on a conversation that’s more likely to feel like an interrogation, that you didn’t get pregnant from a different sexual encounter.
Once the abortion is over, you’ll have to fill out a form telling the hospital what to do with the remains. You can choose to have them cremated or buried, and as a devout Catholic and a good Pole, you’ll know that cremation is against church teachings. Some hospitals will record your decision, because they want to track how “babies” get final rites.
“That’s what’s in the form: It says ‘baby,’” said one gynecologist, who works in one of Poland’s biggest cities and asked for anonymity because speaking to the press about abortion could put her job at risk. “There’s huge pressure on women to treat this situation like they’re losing a child, to feel all the trauma of losing a baby.”
All of that will happen to you only if you get the abortion in the first place, which is not very likely. Doctors in Poland don’t have to perform abortions, but must refer you to another doctor if they conscientiously object. Often, they’ll drag the referral process out, and even if you show up with a referral, hospital staff might dodge your request. Monika Gąsiorowska, a lawyer with experience in reproductive rights cases, had a client who said she needed an abortion in conservative Lublin, one of Poland’s biggest cities. Lublin hospitals recorded four abortions in 2015, and when Gąsiorowska’s client finally got a referral and went to the hospital, “they just didn’t admit her,” Gąsiorowska said. “They didn’t have to claim any conscience clause. They just said, ‘No room.’ That’s it.”
The game, reproductive rights advocates say, is to get women past the cutoff for a legal abortion. In rape cases, that’s 12 weeks, or the first trimester; where there are medical problems for the fetus, the cutoff depends on its viability, but is no later than 25 weeks. After that, it’s too late to get a legal abortion, no matter the circumstance.
“Women [in the last days of eligibility] come from the whole country to our hospital begging for termination,” said the gynecologist. She said the head of the gynecology section of her hospital prioritizes women from rural areas who are closest to the cutoff because they’re unlikely to find another doctor in time. It’s not ideal, she said, but “if he agreed to do it in all cases, we wouldn’t do anything else. We’d just be doing last-minute abortions all the time.”
It’s not necessarily any easier to get an abortion in an emergency situation, she said. These situations aren’t common — she’s only seen it happen once in six years — but the whole atmosphere was “very hostile and unfriendly. The midwives treated [the patient] really badly. They were saying things like, ‘You stupid woman, why did you even decide to get pregnant?’ She was in a seriously bad condition; she could have lost her eyesight,” the gynecologist said. “There is no social tolerance for these situations.”
The recent move to ban abortion would’ve turned this social intolerance into criminal liability. It still may: After a petition review by a parliamentary committee, PiS is expected to introduce its own abortion bill, with the full weight of the party behind it, soon. The defeated draft outlined prison sentences for anyone involved, willingly or accidentally, in the death of a fetus — which technically included pregnant women, although the draft carved out clemency at the discretion of a judge.
“This would’ve meant the pregnancy is controlled by a prosecutor, not by a doctor,” said Wielichowska, a member of the Civic Platform, the biggest opposition party in parliament. In other words, a pregnancy is first and foremost a matter of social — and criminal — judgment, and secondarily a matter of medicine.
Ordo Iuris, the organization that drafted the bill, says the media and “radical feminists” misrepresented the language to make it sound like Poland would jail pregnant women willy-nilly. “The truth was that mothers were the only group of perpetrators in this criminal law who could be totally cleared of everything, even if…they aborted their child cold-blooded,” said Karina Walinowicz, a legal analyst at Ordo Iuris. “It’s not that judges are also forced to penalize a mother because he finds out she was guilty.”
“This would’ve meant the pregnancy is controlled by a prosecutor, not by a doctor.”
Many people who express an anti-abortion position in Poland also express a mistrust of women. Emil Berebecki runs the anti-abortion committee of KoLiber, an exclusive conservative group that wants to groom the next generation of political leaders. He thinks that the mother’s life exception is applied too liberally: He’d heard that having high blood pressure might qualify. “For me personally it’s one of the best examples of such stupid reasons to carry out the abortion,” he said. On the other hand, any maternity specialist, and just about any mother, knows high blood pressure can mean preeclampsia, a potentially fatal complication of pregnancy. The only way to survive it is to treat it, and the only way to treat it is to remove the fetus.
Dr. Bogdan Chazan thinks women are sadly misguided. A 72-year-old gynecologist, he’s an archetypal gentleman — polite, gracious, well-dressed — and long a man of some power. For 10 years, Chazan ran the obstetrics and gynecology unit at one of Warsaw’s major hospitals. In 2014, a pregnant woman asked him for an abortion because she was carrying an abnormal fetus, one of the three exceptions for which Polish law allows abortion. Chazan refused, and not without some flair.
“There were some people asking me if I refuse as a doctor or as a director, and my reply was, ‘I refuse as a whole human being,’” he said at a café near his home. “I was told by some wise men that I received the role of the witness and it is my duty to be a witness — I won’t say for humanity, [but] for other people. My demand is that in the future, the other directors of hospitals that care about protecting lives will not find themselves in the situation that I am in.”
Chazan thought he had the kind of public profile that would simultaneously protect him and make a loud, public test case. He’d tripled the number of deliveries at his hospital, he says, and cut its infant mortality rate to less than half of the national average. He’d even been given an award by the president. But he overestimated his clout, and the mayor of Warsaw fired him. His refusal to provide his patient with access to abortion was investigated by a prosecutor, who cleared Chazan because his decision didn’t “create danger for the health or life of the mother,” Chazan said. However, her baby, which essentially had no brain, died 10 days after it was born.
There’s still a pending civil case against him; the woman who sought Chazan’s help claims Chazan dragged his feet in refusing, making it impossible for her to access the procedure before the cutoff. Meanwhile, in late February, Chazan was appointed to a health ministry team set up to rewrite the country's pre-natal care standards.
There’s clear support for restricting abortion in Poland — an Ipsos survey released last month found 1 in 5 Poles supports abortion only when it will save a mother’s life, and 1 in 10 supports outlawing it completely — but not everyone took Chazan’s side. “People were saying that I made the mother suffer, that I made this child suffer,” he said. “But I know that the child that is killed in a mother’s womb suffers too. So I hope that this child was being treated by extensive neo-natal care, that it didn’t suffer. I hope.”
When asked about the trauma this woman likely experienced, Chazan paused. “For me it is a very sensitive point of discussion. I think it is not the right thing to deprive a person from suffering by killing both suffering and a human being," he said, referring to the woman's fetus. "Generally people want to eliminate suffering from their lives nowadays. But suffering is a part of our lives. We would not appreciate happiness if there was no suffering. Because happiness is a lack of suffering, to some extent.”
The social judgment implicit in Chazan’s words often follows Monica Gąsiorowska into the courtroom. In mid-February, she sat in the basement café of Poland’s Supreme Court, a hyperlinear glass building colored an otherworldly green; its back floors rest on the heads of larger-than-life statues of three female figures, who stand like Greek columns and prop up meeting rooms.
Gąsiorowska was trying to choose the right strategy for an appeal. Her 35-year-old client had a baby with Down syndrome. The condition shouldn’t have been a surprise: Because of her age, Gąsiorowska’s client should have been enrolled in a national program to manage risky pregnancies, but hospital staff didn’t tell her about it. The program probably would have diagnosed the Down syndrome, and Gąsiorowska’s client would have been entitled to an abortion.
In Poland, you don’t even have to explain the last part: Everyone knows that a diagnosing a condition like Down syndrome presents a woman with a choice. If you want to win a case, you probably don’t want to say that. “Everybody I ask says, ‘Talk about right to information, but don’t talk about abortion.’ It’s the magical word that you cannot say because everybody will be like —” She raised her shoulders to her ears, tightened her fists and curled her whole body inward.
Gąsiorowska knows from experience that judges don’t trust women. In 2008, she represented a 14-year-old rape survivor who was removed from her parents by a family court after she tried to get an abortion — and then investigated by a criminal court for allegedly breaking a law on underage sex. And she knows the few other reproductive rights cases the court has heard — the 2003 case of a woman denied an abortion despite a clear risk to her health; the 2004 case of a woman denied a prenatal exam by a doctor who said she’d use the information to go get an abortion — haven’t ended in women’s favor. (In later appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, both women won judgments against Poland.)
All that is to say, Gąsiorowska knows you don’t get very far talking about reproductive rights in a Polish court room. In the lower court that ruled against her 35-year-old client, the judges were aghast — not that a pregnant woman had been denied medical information or access to help for at-risk pregnancies, but that the woman might have wanted that information in the first place. “They were asking, ‘Amniocentesis is a very risky examination with a 1% chance of miscarriage, and you wanted to have this examination?” Gąsiorowska said. “I was like, ‘Did I enter the wrong court room? What’s the point?’”
“So,” she continued, trying to center herself before her opening argument. “Should I go straight to the point and say she would have wanted to have an abortion, with these fetal abnormalities? Or do I stop one point before? Should we be talking about access to abortion, or should we just be swimming around about access to information?”
Her dilemma is a microcosm of a much bigger issue. How to talk about these things — especially when you’re trying to persuade people to take your point of view — has long been a battle, one conservatives usually win. They’re the “pro-life” people, after all.
Ordo Iuris, the Catholic think tank that drafted the ban, pushes “pro-life” logic a step further — by borrowing liberal human rights rhetoric and repurposing it for a fight against abortion. For Ordo Iuris, banning abortion isn’t just about protecting life; it’s about “the principle of equality before the law.” If society doesn’t tolerate discrimination against people because of age or disability, the group argues, why should society let pregnant mothers “discriminate” against their own fetuses? From this perspective, an abortion ban is actually the logical conclusion of a liberal values system. As Ordo Iuris’s website puts it, banning abortion is really just eliminating “legal discrimination against people in their prenatal period of development.”
Reproductive rights activists reject all this. “We are not interested in the moment a life begins,” said Kacpura, of the family planning federation. “Next time, they’ll say that the beginning of life is when two people meet, male and female, because they might eventually have sex, and then —“ She waves her hand, cutting the idea off.
But Kacpura acknowledges that, in Poland, things are harder on her side of the debate. “More than 20 years ago, somewhere, somehow, we lost our progressive language,” she said. Above all, she said, last fall’s protests have inspired her and other activists to take back some of the rhetorical turf. They’ve organized a national coalition of more than 60 groups, and they’re planning campaigns to keep gender issues at the forefront of political discussions.
They kicked off this new phase of their work on International Women’s Day, on March 8. Thousands of women took the streets again, banging pots and pans and demanding equal pay, equal treatment, and reproductive rights, including access to contraception. They wore their trademark black, but they held up red cards against the government — a double homage to the penalty that benches a player for the game and to the color chosen for global solidarity among women that day.
“We’re telling Polish women, we have rights — including the right to vote,” she said. “We were begging our parliamentarians to stop that draconian law. That was their last chance. Now, we will ask the candidates about these issues before we vote. We decided, as women, we’ve gone begging for the last time.”
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