On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal (Trybunał Konstytucyjny, TK) of Poland, stacked by justices from the conservative ruling party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), ruled that termination of pregnancies is unconstitutional even when prenatal testing or other medical rationales show a large likelihood of severe and irreversible foetal impairment or an incurable life-threatening disease of the future child.
This is yet another assault on basic reproductive rights in Poland; in theory, it limits the legality of abortion in Poland to cases of rape or in the event of threat of life for the mother. In reality, it creates even more life-threatening situations for pregnant women, particularly working class women, as those who can afford it will continue to visit abortion clinics across the border in Czechia or Germany (where it is legal), whereas everyone else will be forced to turn to the illegal abortion underground within Poland, which is much less safe or reliable and carries even greater stigma within the wider Catholic society. This also virtually bans abortion, as 1,074 of the 1,100 abortions performed in Poland last year resulted from foetal abnormalities.1 When it comes to rape, stigmatisation and victim blaming remains common, and speaking out about one’s experiences of sexual abuse is difficult enough without having to worry about that to begin with…
This is not the first time that PiS has attacked reproductive rights. And – just like it was with the previous “Black Protest” in response to earlier attempts to completely and fully ban abortion in the country – the move has been met with widespread disapproval as thousands of women and others opposed to this law gathered in protest on the streets already in the very evening after the TK ruling was made. These demonstrations, although a result of spontaneous anger, are mostly led by the liberal and feminist group Strajk Kobiet, and are supported by anarchists, anti-fascists, and social-democrat groupings. However, at this point it is also worth mentioning that most of the key players in the parliamentary opposition to PiS, either from or related to the liberal Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) party, have also never made any progress, or indeed expressed much interest at all, with regards to giving women easier and safer access to abortion when PO was in power.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, although still taboo in a largely Catholic society, reproductive rights in Poland were some of the most liberal in the world, but they have been greatly restricted since the “democratic transition” of 1989 – starting with legal changes in 1990 that made access to safe abortion even more difficult. Since then, there have been no real successful changes to the law that would make abortion more accessible – only further restrictions and modifications to it in line with the Catholic agenda in 1993 and 1997, as well as (fortunately) unsuccessful attempts to ban abortion outright. The liberal and social-democratic blocs that had the chance to propose some more humane changes either showed a lack of interest or outright refused to make reforms in fear of upsetting the so-called “abortion compromise” with the Catholic Church, whereas the few smaller left-wing parties that do make legal and freely available abortion a key part of their programme remain on the margins.
All of this makes it obvious that, at least for the foreseeable future, there will be no positive changes to Polish abortion law without massive pressure on the government. Moreover, sadly access to abortion does remain a controversial issue in Poland and, even though the vast majority of the individuals who pushed through the TK ruling were men, there are plenty of people outside of parliament (including many conservative women) who would argue for even tighter control of the process or a complete ban on abortion. In fact, 50% of women who voted in the second round of the 2020 presidential elections knowingly voted for the PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda. And, in a display of hypocrisy common for the bourgeoisie, the chairman of the TK is actually a chairwoman (Julia Przyłębska).
There is no real solution to these problems under capitalism, as we have seen rights granted can be just as easily taken away. Not that abortion rights in Poland were particularly extensive to begin with. However, it is undeniable that PiS – which has been in power since 20152 – has been handling these matters exceptionally poorly.3 As we have previously written in our coverage of the 2020 presidential elections4 that kept Andrzej Duda in office, the right-wing government has ramped up its campaign against LGBT+ minorities: dehumanising statements from Polish politicians about anyone who is not straight are now commonplace, resembling mid-20th century style homophobia, while LGBT+ activists have been subjected to police violence and arrests (the same kind of repression is now being used against protesters infuriated by the TK ruling). And just as before, when the EU and largely the West in general wagged their fingers at PiS refusals to accept non-Christian refugee quotas as well as concerning the aforementioned attacks on the LGBT+ community, this tightening of abortion restrictions along with the wave of protests that hit the country immediately after it are making waves in Western media. But it isn’t just the sectors of society which the Catholic Church finds distasteful that are feeling the pressure.
The poorer tenants of various cities of Poland, especially in the capital, are subjected to wild evictions. Landlords, as well as owners of older properties who reappear after years of neglect, often hire thugs to terrorise and force impoverished tenants out of their own homes. The methods used to attain these wild evictions (physical force, humiliation and harassment, sudden renovations, urinating on the floors, etc.) are often illegal under Polish law, but the Polish government – both in the past when run by PO as well as now with PiS – refuse to do anything about it, despite the existence of a tenants’ movement demanding change. Police, when called by residents to deal with the thugs, stand by and do nothing then leave. This shows that, despite the social charade of PiS presenting itself as the government of the everyday people, the impoverished were never on the agenda. And that absurd statements from Polish free market enthusiasts that PiS is somehow a left-wing (even socialist!) party have no basis in reality whatsoever, as PiS is first and foremost, like any parliamentary party in government from whichever political camp, a manager of capitalism. Even the populist re-privatisation act that PiS passed through earlier this month will not change this fact, as it only serves to give voters the impression that the government cares for the wellbeing of its electorate.
Some of these ridiculous ideas stem from the fact that, as we have previously written, PiS pretends to be a party of the common man. A huge part of the PiS 2015 electoral campaign was the welfare programme called “Rodzina 500 plus” (Family 500 plus), which has actually been in place since April 2016. This populist manoeuvre by PiS, very much in line with the capitalistic Catholic fetish of the nuclear family and boosting declining population numbers, was meant to provide monthly financial support of 500 zł (roughly equivalent to £100 or $130) for each child in a family. Of course, as is the case with all state aid for citizenry, this came with many caveats and was met with just as much (if not more) criticism than praise. Unsurprisingly, many of those living with disabilities rightfully felt left out and – along with their caregivers – came out on the streets to protest a lack of support from the government. Eventually, in October of 2019, a similar welfare programme was launched for those living with disabilities who cannot function on their own, as a reaction to the protests, but many people were soon disappointed to find out that apparently they did not qualify for this either.
Tenants, postal workers, junior doctors, disabled people and their carers, teachers, miners…5 who else will PiS target and alienate next? The list becomes longer and longer. And the latest screw-up by the Polish government is only going to aggravate the situation further – that is, the failure to appropriately prepare for and deal with the COVID-19 pandemic coming to collect its share of Polish lives. While initial lockdowns were implemented much sooner and considerably more responsibly than, for example, in England, by 2 July 2020, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki was going around Poland telling the elderly population that “the epidemic is on the retreat”, that they have nothing to be afraid of, and to get a move on and vote for his party. The number of cases in the country was at over 35,000 on that day. Fast forward to October, when the overall total of confirmed coronavirus cases was 93,481 at the beginning of the month, in the space of just four weeks it has more than doubled and jumped to almost 230,000 – each new day bringing yet another record of daily infections and more deaths.6
Now, as field hospitals are being opened around Poland (even the National Stadium in Warsaw has been repurposed into one!) doctors and medical workers face staff, equipment, and venue shortages while the government incompetently tries to tackle the sharp rise in COVID-19 statistics that came with this year’s autumn season. Hospital workers have been at the forefront of working class struggles in Poland for the past few years. Similarly, notable strikes and protests of miners and postal workers were also seen. Sadly, although impressive in the hyper-individualist reality of post-1989 Poland, the vast majority of these struggles have remained sectional and reactive. If any meaningful change is to be made in Polish society, or indeed any and all societies globally, workers’ struggles must link up with each other and that of working class people oppressed doubly due to their gender or sexuality – united with a clear class awareness and revolutionary character, not along the lines of nationality or creed. And they need to be proactive, with the end goal of consigning capitalism to the ash heap of history, rather than limiting themselves to reactive protests or fighting for piecemeal reforms.
Yet even the most radical working class movement is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past without a clear programme. What is also needed is – for lack of a better word – a party. Not a parliamentary one, but one of a revolutionary communist character. One that could intervene in events like these and pose the working class alternative. Eventually a large organisation of the most politically advanced workers that will advise and guide the proletariat to victory, but never take its place or subjugate it, for the revolution that does away with the misery of capitalism must be carried out by the working class itself – no one can do it for us! Poland’s abortion crisis, the global pandemic, the squalor of poverty, the oppression of the marginalised, and of course the exploitation of the working class cannot be done away with by simply voting. No amount of apparent goodwill and left-wing slogans will resolve these pressing issues. The solution is right in front of us, but many of us are still either too ignorant or too afraid to accept it. Capitalism must go.
No one says it’s going to be easy. The times when internationalists like Ludwik Waryński’s Proletariat Party, Róża Luksemburg's SDKPiL, or the early KPRP7 gathered the masses behind a red banner are long gone. Today even calling oneself a communist in Poland will raise hostility or suspicion from many elements within the public – provoking knee-jerk reactions, comparisons with the murderous regime of Stalin, and potentially even getting oneself into problems with Polish law enforcement for simply using the label. The PiS government, although gradually more authoritarian, is not fascist (but can count on the support of some organised far right groups, like those currently attacking women protestors). Nationalism remains a powerful drug in Poland, and the street presence of hateful right-wingers is significant to say the least, yet some discourses seem to be shifting. Ever more individuals, especially young people, are becoming pissed off with capitalism and aware of it. The sooner they realise that social-democracy and parliamentarism are dead ends that have nothing to do with socialism, and the sooner they start understanding that only the independent anti-capitalist action of the working class in its own international organisations can resolve these questions, the more likely that new political formations will emerge.
For now, it looks like further restrictions to women’s reproductive rights – as well as the ensuing protests – may be yet another nail in the coffin for PiS. That is, assuming the widespread support for this Catholic reactionary programme will waver after this TK ruling, which remains to be seen as up until now the paternalistic populist nationalism of PiS – in conjunction with tangible support from the Polish Catholic Church and complete control over state media to brainwash the population – has sadly proven to be a successful mix that secured two consecutive electoral victories for the xenophobic party. Women are now at the forefront of the current resistance to the heavy-handed governing of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party. Even though recently introduced measures to combat the coronavirus (that effectively put the whole country in partial lockdown) are already being used against the protesters, this has not stopped people from gathering in over 50 different towns and cities across Poland under slogans such as “this is war” and “fuck off”.8 Churches and statues have been vandalised. Sooner or later this patriarchal fiasco will tumble. From Monday 26 October road blockades across Poland are planned and on Wednesday 28 October another "women’s strike" is set to take place. Many workers (regardless of gender) will take part in these actions. But like in Belarus just over the border9 , the onus is still on the working class to emerge as a social force independent of the liberal agenda of the opposition.
- 1As reported by Monika Pronczuk of The New York Times: nytimes.com
- 2See: Elections in Poland: Don't Mourn, Organise!
- 3See: Poland: The 18th Brumaire of Jarosław Kaczyński
- 4See: Poland: Populism Strikes Back
- 5In 2017 postal workers across Poland protested over working conditions and junior doctors went on hunger strike demanding more government spending on health services, in 2018 disabled people and their carers protested in Warsaw over lack of support from the government, in 2019 there was a strike by teachers over pay, and in 2020 miners in workplaces threatened by closure took strike action when the prime minister refused to meet with them.
- 6Statistics taken from Medonet’s continued coverage of the COVID-19 epidemic in Poland.
- 7For background on the Polish workers’ movement see: Who were the Grzechists?, A Brief History of the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland, and other articles on our website.
- 8Numbers acquired from OKO.press Facebook page.
- 9See: Winds of Change in Belarus: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy Offer Anything for the Working Class, Strikes in Belarus Escalate as Lukashenko's Power Wavers, and Belarus: Between Imperialist Feuds and Class Movements.