“People are opposing it in a very vivid way”: an interview with a Polish protester and abortion rights activist10 min read

Tamara Novel
Since 2016, tens of thousands of Polish citizens have been protesting in favour of the liberalization of abortion rights, the so called Black Protests. No one expected that Polish society would be so responsive, yet it happened, and showed that people are willing to engage when it comes to securing their rights. In order to understand the nature of the Black Protests, I met Joanna, a member of the RAZEM Party who is actively engaged in the protests.

In Poland, abortion law is more restrictive than almost anywhere in Europe. According to the  law dating back to 1993, abortion is allowed in only three specific cases: when a pregnancy puts a woman’s life at risk; when, after the confirmation of a prenatal exam, there is a high probability of malformation or illness of a fetus; or when the pregnancy is a result of either rape, incest, or pedophilia. In all other cases, abortion is judged as a criminal act.

The fight against this extremely restrictive abortion law already started back in 1993, when 1.7 million signatures were collected for an appeal for a referendum on abortion, but was rejected by the Sejm (Parliament).

In 2016, the topic was once again brought up as an ultra conservative Christian group opposing abortion called Ordo Iuris launched a citizens’ legislative committee under the name Stop Abortion and started collecting signatures in support of a total abortion ban. It did not take long before Polish society started reacting, however, and one month later another citizens’ legislative committee was launched, this time with a very different purpose. This committee was called Save the Women and it started collecting signatures for a bill liberalizing the existent abortion law.

Save the Women collected 215,000 signatures while Stop Abortion gathered 450,000. Since Polish citizens’ legislative initiatives need 100,000 signatures to advance, this meant that both of them successfully reached Parliament. In September 2016, as the date of the Parliament’s debate on the bills was approaching, the term Black Protest was coined as a hashtag and as a slogan for the opposition. The color black was chosen as a sign of mourning for women’s reproductive rights.

On September 22nd, when the parliamentary debate on both bills took place, thousands of people gathered outside of the Sejm, in Warsaw, united by the Black Protest slogan. One day later, the bill put forward by Ordo Iuris advanced to the second reading while the one proposed by Save the Women was rejected despite the ruling party’s declaration that a citizens’ bill would never be rejected after a first reading. After that day, protests continued to gather momentum and spread outside of the urban centers. The Black Protest became the label of a social phenomenon that showed that thousands of Polish citizens are not willing to quietly accept what the ruling party Law and Justice is willing to do in order to restrict women’s rights.

In order to better understand the nature of the Black Protests, I met Joanna, an activist who engaged in the demonstrations and a member of the group that first pulled the trigger for more activism.

How did it all start?

I will start by explaining my organizational affiliation. Three and a half years ago, I joined the left wing political party RAZEM, which has a predominant left wing feminist view on issues connected to abortion rights and engages on issues concerning reproductive rights. The hashtag #czarnyprotest (#blackprotest), was invented by one of our members. From the very beginning, our main idea was to create a network able to allow a substantial number of people to take action and allow them to show their opposition to the attempts made to restrict the abortion law not only in the big cities, but all over Poland. We encouraged people to take pictures of themselves wearing black and including the hashtag #blackprotest. We also organized a series of demonstrations all over the country, which were held in different “editions” since they were repeated year after year. The biggest one took place in Warsaw, on the day when the law was discussed at the Polish Sejm. What really moved me was that, besides people gathering in the big cities, people from small towns demonstrated as well. Sometimes even just two or three people from small villages showed their support.

Overall, these were probably the biggest demonstrations in Poland since 1989 and it was really impressive.

Would you say that the Black Protest could be called a social media movement since it relied on web platforms?

Pictures and hashtags were shared on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and for sure that helped quite a lot. People were joining more and more as the time passed by and I think social media helped in this process.

I would also say that the movement had something very unique: it became mainstream. Those who weren’t really engaged in activism before, by seeing their friends participating in the project, felt like sharing their pictures on the web. Facebook discussion groups flourished as well. Some of those groups still exist and the discussions carry on.

What’s also really important for me is that people who joined the movement just because they were opposing the proposed restrictions and were somehow pro status quo and wanted neither a restriction nor a liberalization of the law, changed their attitudes through discussion. It makes me smile to think that the government wanted to restrict the law very harshly but in fact, what it encountered, was a great backlash.

Was the protest more gender related or was there a big support from the male side as well?

I would say that it was mainly women, but there was a fair share of men as well. Some of them started realizing how important it was to secure abortion rights for women.

Poland is a country where the Catholic Church is very influential. How much has it influenced the whole abortion discourse?

At the beginning of the 90s, politicians made a deal with the Church in order to restrict the abortion law and huge protests took place, where up to 2 million people went to the streets. To this day, we are dealing with the aftermath of this deal. Now, the Church is supporting campaigns for the restriction of the abortion rights. What is happening, though, is that it is starting to experience some backlash. This summer, activists sprayed “this is my body, this is my blood” and “I warn you” on the parish house and the metropolitan curia in Warsaw. We can say that the reaction to the Church is becoming more and more visible. Despite the fact that more than 90 percent of people in Poland are Catholic, the rates of Church attendance are dropping.

On one hand, the Church has a big impact on society, especially since the right wing party Law and Justice is in government, but on the other hand we can see that people are opposing it in a very vivid way.

Overall we can say that there are three tendencies within Polish society right now: one that is very conservative, one that is liberal conservative, where people who vote for liberal centric parties and are against an excessive power of church, and a last one that is left leaning.

In terms of abortion rights, now more people from the last two groups think that abortion rights should be legal and easily accessible.

Do you think there was international support for the protest?

There were solidarity demonstrations in cities where Polish minorities are prominent. I myself was an organizer of a demonstration in New York, where we manifested in front of the Polish embassy. We saw that all over the world people were organizing demonstrations, and this was really touching. Great support came from Latin America and Ireland, since we were sharing similar struggles. Sharing experiences was a key point during the time we were protesting. With regards to the media, we got some coverage especially in the English speaking ones. I personally talked to some Norwegian journalists. We felt that people were listening to us and that was very important.

Were there any repercussions for the protesters?

Some teachers who participated to the protests got disciplinary cases because they posted pictures but eventually nothing more happened. I wouldn’t say that there were big repercussions, just small cases where people, for example, organized demonstrations without filling in the paperwork and had a case.

Where do you stand now?

That’s a difficult question. I think that people became more aware and ready to engage because of the steps they made from the beginning of the protests. On the other hand, though, the proposal to change the law wasn’t even voted on in the parliament and this created a lot of frustration. I don’t think there is much hope to change it right now.

People were and still are really angry. However, society is still actively engaged on the topic. There is a group called Aborcyjny Dream Team (Abortion dream team) who are doing a lot in terms of sexual education. Three of the members were even featured on the cover of the magazine Wysokie Obcasy while wearing a T-Shirt that stated “Aborcja jest ok” (Abortion is ok). They are very active in hanging posters and billboards to show that there is a community that is willing to normalize the process and to show that nobody is left aside alone. I admire their job a lot. For me, what is important right now is to build networks of informal help for women in need. That’s one thing I really care about.

"Abortion is ok", members of the Abortion dream team featured on the cover of Wysokie Obcasy in 2018. Source: Wysokie Obcasy“Abortion is ok”, members of the Abortion dream team featured on the cover of Wysokie Obcasy in 2018. Source: Wysokie Obcasy

Talking to Joanna, I admired her positivity, and the fact that she assessed the protests as a success. However, Poland is going through a very delicate phase concerning women’s reproductive rights. Earlier this month, the UN expressed concern on the possible rollback on sexual and reproductive health of women in the country. The role that the protests played in the past two years is of utter importance, because it showed that there are people willing to engage actively when it comes to securing their rights. What is important is that the protests created a community that is still active and strong and that shows that no women in need of  help is left alone, as showed, for example, by the group Aborcyjny Dream Team.

The latest demonstrations took place on the 23rd of March this year. Two years since the beginning of the protests, abortion rights are still topical in Poland. This wasn’t mirrored, however, by the local elections that took place last October. Journalists Paulina Milewska and Krzysztof Pacewicz predicted in Wysokie Obcasy that those who bet on legal abortion would win the elections. That didn’t end up happening – the Law and Justice party, which called for a total ban on abortion, and the political party Civic Platform, which advocates for maintaining the status quo, won the majority of local council posts. Polish society still seem to be divided on the issue and it is really difficult to picture if and how it will be resolved in the future.

Joanna’s surname has been deliberately withheld from this publication.

Tamara Novel is a half Italian and half Croatian student. She is currently specializing in Central Europe and is studying Polish. She is also passionate about Balkans’ history and culture. Tamara’s interests include international relations, politics and cultural perspectives. She holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy from Italy.