Protests shake Poland as government looks for a retreat on abortion ruling

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WARSAW — Enormous crowds took to the streets of Polish cities Friday night, with thousands heading to the house of Jarosław Kaczyński, the country’s de facto ruler, to protest last week’s court ruling tightening Poland’s already-restrictive abortion laws.

The scale and momentum of the protests is prompting the government to try to find a compromise that would defang the demonstrations.

Polish President Andrzej Duda on Friday proposed a new abortion law that would allow the procedure in cases where prenatal diagnosis shows a “high probability” of the fetus being stillborn or being born with a condition “leading inevitably and directly to death.” That comes after the country’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on October 22 that abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality violate the Polish constitution.

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Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appealed for people to stop protesting — on a day when Poland noted a record 21,628 COVID-19 cases. “I’m not asking that we forget about the conflict over abortion, but to put it aside for a better time,” he said Friday afternoon.

Both appeals were ignored by protesters, who surged onto the streets to demand a complete rethink of abortion, and more broadly to campaign against the Law and Justice (PiS) government that has ruled Poland since 2015. The main motto of the protests is a vulgar “fuck off” and chanted refrains of “Fuck PiS” echoed throughout the streets of Warsaw as protesters marched from Morawiecki’s office across downtown toward Kaczyński’s house. Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski estimated that more than 50,000 people took part.

Thousands of protesters in Warsaw | Omar Marques/Getty Images

“I came out here to show my opposition to what the tribunal decided, but also to show I’ve had enough,” said Anna Borowska, 43, who was marching alongside her husband. “I had to come and protest because otherwise we’ll no longer be able to live in this country. It’s breaking my heart but we are thinking of leaving Poland.”

The decision of the tribunal, widely seen as being under the political control of PiS, further polarized what is already a deeply divided society. Some of the early protests targeted Catholic churches, blaming the tight alliance between parts of the church and PiS for overturning an abortion compromise that had stood since 1993.

In response, a mix of tough-looking young men and praying parishioners blocked the front stairs of St. Alexander’s Church in downtown Warsaw, in turn protected by ranks of civilian and military police.

“We’re here to protect our fucking holy places from these fucking people,” said one man who refused to give his name. “These people aren’t Poles, they’re fascists trying to destroy our country.”

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Some nationalists threw flares and firecrackers into the crowd of marchers.

But for some of the people in front of St. Alexander’s, the tribunal’s ruling makes sense in what is still a deeply Catholic country.

“It’s not politicians but people of faith who started the movement to ban abortion,” said Paweł Gierech, 46, pointing to red splashes of paint left on the facade of the church from protests earlier in the week.

People take part in the “March on Warsaw” protest | Radek Pietruszka/EFE via EPA

“Many people support this decision … this is just a very loud minority,” he said of the protesters walking by the church.

But on the other side, many people see no return to the old abortion law — already one of the toughest in Europe. It largely kept abortion out of politics through the fiction that abortions were very rare in Poland. Last year there were only 1,110 legal abortions in the country, but the true number is likely closer to 150,000, according to abortion rights groups.

“What I really want is abortion on demand for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy,” said Monika Chmiel, 30.

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In an address on Facebook earlier this week, Kaczyński defended the ruling and cast its opponents as enemies of the country. “This is an attack which is supposed to destroy Poland, which is to lead to the triumph of forces whose rule will essentially end the history of the Polish nation as we’ve known it,” he said, calling on members of his party “to defend the church.”

“I don’t support attacking churches and today we can see it’s no longer happening,” said Chmiel. “But the scale of people coming out onto the streets during a pandemic shows the scale of our anger.”

The organizers of the women’s marches have put out out a list of demands, ranging from women’s rights to the resignation of the government.

However, the PiS-led nationalist coalition won last year’s parliamentary election and PiS-backed Duda won another five-year term earlier this year, and has no intention of quitting.

The organizers plan more demonstrations next week.

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