On Monday October 3rd the eyes of the world were for a moment set on Poland. Deemed “Black Monday” it was the day when pro-choice rallies took place in 87 Polish cities and small towns with more than 30 thousand black-clad protesters spilling over the streets and squares despite a heavy rain. That day was declared a nationwide strike of women and supporters in response to the looming project of a law drastically restricting, or practically cancelling reproductive rights of women and trans persons in Poland. This atrocious proposal would totally ban all abortions and further criminalize women seeking pregnancy termination with up to 5 years in prison, as well as medical professionals in any way aiding them liable for a prison term. Effectively this would lead to the situation women and trans persons in El Salvador have been dealing with since 1998, where they are being incarcerated for miscarriage.
On Monday October 3rd 2016 tens of thousands women and supporters in Poland boycotted their jobs and classes, wearing black as sign of mourning. Just like our sisters in Iceland in 1975, Polish women and trans persons were on strike: we took a day off at work, many universities and schools called off their classes, many other institutions and employers officially joined the strike, some establishments had to close because their employees didn’t turn up to work. It was also a day off from any unpaid domestic labor that usually burdens women: no more childcare, cleaning, or shopping. Instead, we took the streets. There were numerous solidarity protests all around the world from Toronto, Shanghai, Dublin, Berlin, and Prague, to Bologna, Budapest, and New York. Solidarity messages arrived from places as far away and torn by their own struggles as the besieged Palestine or Aleppo.
That day undoubtedly something broke in the Polish society. Massive mobilization across social classes and generations was unprecedented. Many disbelieved that such scale of solidarity was even possible. Before many considered the debate about abortion a “red herring,” distracting public attentions from other “really important” issues. Whilst the silence from government controlled national media on both the numbers of protesters and the significance of this action, international media outlets quickly declared victory of the pro-choice campaigners. Indeed, the government got afraid of thousands of women in the streets, and during a night meeting of the parliament (started at 11 pm) officially rejected the civil project of the law that was accepted for the works in commissions just a week before. However, we are not done yet!
Don’t be fooled by the words of humility from conservative politicians. This is a strategy to calm down the general social unrest. As much as we have allowed ourselves to celebrate the huge success of neutralizing the “immediate threat,” it is obvious for us that we cannot stop here. When international media outlets enthusiastically share the news that the Polish government made a “U-turn” on the planned restriction of abortion it makes me really mad, because from watching the parliamentary debate and following closely Polish news on the topic it is clear that reproductive rights are still high up on the political agenda. Members of the ruling conservative party Law and Justice already announced that they have another project further restricting abortions at works. They now distance themselves from the civil project prepared by an ultraconservative legal think thank group Ordo Iuris. The new proposed bill will most likely remove the highly controversial provision about the criminalization of women seeking abortion, but it wants to introduce an absurd category of “eugenic abortion,” removing one of the 3 cases, in which abortion is still legal in Poland, that is when fetus is seriously malformed.
This brings me to the main issue at stake here: Poland has already practically and effectively banned abortions. The current anti-abortion law in force since 1993 often called a “compromise” as a horrific legacy of “peaceful system transformation,” is one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. The 3 cases, in which abortion is permitted – when the pregnancy is a result of a crime (rape or incest), when it endangers the life or health of the woman, and when the fetus is seriously malformed – are merely rigorous exceptions from a generally cruel rule controlling our bodies. Access to legal abortion is severely restricted, and together with a lack of any institutionalized form of sexual education it has been pushing women and persons seeking help to the so-called “abortion underground” for the past 23 years. That is why the main goal of the black protest is to liberalize the existing law curbing reproductive rights and that fight is clearly not over yet.
The recent remarkable mobilization of women and supporters all over Poland was a huge success with crowds swarming public spaces of cities, towns, and smaller localities across the country. It united women and persons who have probably never before stood side-by-side. However, this moment is also fragile, and a premature declaration of victory might weaken the solidarity that resulted from an extreme life-threatening attack on our freedom of choice. We have to keep fighting for our right to safe and legal abortion on demand and to solid sexual education in schools. Don’t be fooled by the hazy promises of the Polish government. Don’t stop supporting us, and please, keep your eyes on Poland. No more compromises!
Marianna Szczygielska is a queer-feminist activist. She is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest.