Poland abortion strike: Nearly six million women expected to protest restrictive laws

Women in several other European countries to take to the streets in solidarity

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The Independent Online

Nearly six million people are expected to take part in an all-out strike on Monday against a plan to effectively ban women in Poland from having abortions.

Thousands of Poles took part in demonstrations over the weekend, as momentum built ahead of the mass action when women in several other European countries are expected to protest in solidarity with the strikers. 

Female workers across the country will withdraw their labour in an effort to bring the economy to a standstill and highlight attempts to tighten already restricted abortion laws even further.

Protests in Poland over proposed abortion ban in April

“A lot of women and girls in this country have felt that they don’t have any power, that they are not equal, that they don’t have the right to an opinion,” Magda Staroszczyk, a strike co-ordinator, told The Guardian. “This is a chance for us to be seen, and to be heard.”

Terminations are currently permitted in Poland, where 87 per cent of the population identify as Catholic, only when the life of the foetus is under threat, when there is a grave threat to the health of the mother, or when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

If the proposed ban were enacted, all terminations would be criminalised and women who had abortions could be sent to prison for up to five years. Doctors found to have assisted with a termination would also be liable for prosecution and a prison sentence.

Critics say the new law could mean woman suffering miscarriages would be suspected and investigated, and doctors might be put off conducting even routine procedures on pregnant women for fear of being accused of facilitating an abortion.

A government committee is currently considering the proposal, which was initiated by a hardline conservative advocacy group and submitted by the Stop Abortion coalition as a “citizens’ initiative” – a petition considered by parliament once it has received more than 100,000 signatures.

Official strikes, part of what has been called the “black protest”, will be taking place in over 60 different Polish cities on Monday. In an act of solidarity, a number of businesses and corporations have reportedly pledged to shut their doors as part of the strike.

Protesters are being encouraged to wear black and post photos on social media of them participating in the action.

Inspiration for the protest came from an all-out strike more than 40 years ago by women in Iceland, where 90 per cent of women refused to work, cook, or look after their children for a day in October 1975.

In the past, feminist, pro-choice activists in Poland have struggled to inspire the wider population, who tend to oppose abortion because of their religion. According to a poll for Newsweek Polska, 74 per cent of Poles support the retention of the existing “compromise” – restrictive legislation passed in 1993. 

But the extreme nature of the proposed ban has radicalised a broader demographic. Polling company Ipsos found 50 per cent of Poles support the strike, with 15 per cent saying they would like to take part, amounting to nearly six million people. 

“One thing that I think really radicalised women is when they understood that this could lead to incarceration for women who had miscarriages,” Agnieszka Graff, a commentator, activist, and author, told The Guardian.

Malgorzata Lodyga, a junior doctor who supports the strike, said: “My mother is very Catholic, goes to church every Sunday, and is against abortion just because you might not want the child,”  “But she is against this law, because if a woman is raped, she will be treated worse than the man who raped her.”

Police estimate around 5,000 people rallied outside Parliament in Warsaw on Saturday, many dressed in black to signify that they were mourning the loss of reproductive rights women could suffer if the law passes. Speakers said a total ban on abortion, including for victims of rape or women whose lives are endangered by a pregnancy, would be “barbaric." 

Campaigners added that they wanted as few abortions as possible in Poland, but this goal should be achieved with better sex education in schools and easier access to birth control, The New York Times reported.  

“We will not allow our hospitals to be turned into torture chambers and our doctors into prison guards,” Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bak, a member of the left-wing Together party, told the crowd.

Protesters chanted “Stop the fanatics!” and “We want doctors not, missionaries,” while slogans on banners included: “My body, my choice”.

One protester, Gosia Goszczynska, 36, told The New York Times: “It's terrible to force a rape victim to have her child if she doesn’t want it – this could even lead to cases of women killing their unwanted children after birth. I don't agree with this at all. It’s just not acceptable.” 

According to official figures, around 1,000 legal abortions are performed in Poland every year. However, it is estimated a considerably higher number also take place illegally, with up to 150,000 women each year performing abortions on themselves, often with pills bought online.

In June of last year, activists used drones to fly abortion pills into Poland in a show of solidarity with local women. 

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