Last year, there were just over 1000 legal abortions in Poland. 98% of these terminations would now be against Polish law. 15 men and three women, judges of the top court mostly appointed by the current nationalist ruling party, have decided that abortion due to foetal defects is no longer permitted.
Already one of the most restrictive countries in the European Union on abortion, Poland has now effectively banned the procedure in almost all cases.
This has led to numerous protests in both urban and rural areas of Poland, as well as across Europe. Last Sunday (25/10/20), over 40 people held a socially-distanced demonstration for abortion access on Parker’s Piece. I spoke to several Polish people who attended this event, including one man and one non-Cambridge student. We discussed the impact of these rights violations and the unsafe illegal abortions they lead to, organising during Covid-19 and what it means to make yourself heard in the diaspora.
Some student protesters have managed to find a sense of ‘empowerment’ or ‘solidarity’ through their stand for reproductive rights. But those I speak to feel weighed down with collective grief and weariness, as much as they appreciate expressing rage with people who understand what’s going on in Poland and what’s at stake.
‘Protesting [about matters such as abortion rights] is never pleasant’, HSPS student Barbara tells me — ‘it is genuinely sad’. Attempting to defend Polish people, particularly women, against a tightening of already restrictive abortion laws is a battle likely to be challenging and drawn out. Protesting and dealing with the emotional as well as political fallout is ‘tiring’ when, as Cambridge student Laura says, it feels like ‘our government can do whatever they feel like doing and there’ll be no consequences’. One attendee tells me it feels ‘somehow painful’ to be unable to attend protests within Poland itself.
When almost all abortion becomes banned in your country, your homeland can feel less like a place you could really go back to. For Polish people living elsewhere, this new ruling is not only about solidarity with citizens back home. The consequences of this decision, for many, could represent a direct personal security concern if you were to return.
These fears are very real for an anonymous Polish Cambridge student at the protest. For her, an already difficult political situation in her home country has only escalated: ‘I have never felt safe in Poland. Now I don’t simply feel unsafe, I feel threatened’.
For her, an already difficult political situation in her home country has only escalated: ‘I have never felt safe in Poland. Now I don’t simply feel unsafe, I feel threatened’.
As well as legitimate fears, devastating personal experience informs the perspectives and political activism of some demonstrating here. While many protesters may have lived outside Poland for years, or never been a resident there at all, it’s important not to underestimate the direct impact restrictive laws surrounding abortion have already had on the lives of some Polish people living in Cambridge.
‘I underwent an illegal abortion [in Poland] when I was 18,’ a Cambridge University student who attended the protest discloses. Hugely difficult at the time, the impact of this termination for her is lasting and difficult to discuss. ‘It was an extremely traumatising experience about which I was unable to talk for three years’, she says.
The serious traumatic associations and consequences of this legal change do not, however, mean the recent protest was purely a struggle to be endured. As well as showing ‘respect for others’ space’ and health by following Covid guidelines on mask-wearing and social distancing, this Cambridge demonstration also allowed for an emotional and sometimes artistic form of political expression.
‘There were many really creative posters’, says student protestor Maria.
Offerings ran from ‘feminist classics like “my body, my choice”, “get out of my uterus” to slogans melding Polish words into English-language cultural references like “no woman no kraj”, a play on Bob Marley’s song ‘No Woman No Cry’. (‘Kraj’ in Polish means ‘a country’, but is pronounced exactly the same as the English word ‘cry’).
Organisers could draw some hope and solidarity from both the public’s engagement with their protest and the diversity and behaviour of those who turned up on the day. Maria, one of the students involved in setting up the event, was ‘surprised how many people have shown up despite the short notice’. She was also ‘moved’ by the high number of (mostly Polish) men who joined the demonstration.
High school student Wiktoria noted, ‘The youngest person at the event was in a pram, and the oldest had kids older than me’. Students were key in leading and organising this protest, but support seemed to go beyond gender or age demographics.
‘I was amazed by passersby,’ adds Wiktoria. ‘Some of them were clapping hands, taking photos, or even ringing their bicycle bells to show solidarity.’ This encouragement can be truly valuable, especially for those who may be just starting out in more public forms of political engagement. ‘They have given me the power to scream harder,’ she says.
Organising a protest with restrictions on physical proximity does come with challenges, but, as Polish student Marcin points out, ‘distancing can be an advantage – it means your protest takes up more space!