WARSAW, Poland — Poland is a largely conservative country compared to much of Europe, a place where churches fill up on Sundays and Roman Catholicism is deeply interwoven with the national identity.
So why has a court ruling restricting abortion sparked more than a week of angry protests across the central European nation of 38 million?
Hundreds of thousands have been pouring into the streets for days, defying the risk of contagion amid a spike in COVID-19 infections that have been hitting new records each day, reaching nearly 22,000 on Friday.
With a mass march scheduled for Friday evening in Warsaw, here is a look at some of the key issues.
Top Court Rules
The immediate trigger of the protests was an Oct. 22 decision by the constitutional court that had been asked to rule on a provision of a 27-year-old law which allows abortions in cases of severe fetal deformity, including Down syndrome. The latter is one of the main reasons cited for the roughly 1,000 legal terminations performed in Poland each year.
Lawmakers with the ruling Law and Justice party were among those who sought the court’s review. They say they want to ensure fetuses with Down syndrome are allowed to be born.
Poland in the Bigger Picture
Klementyna Suchanow, one of the main organizers with the initiative Women’s Strike, the key force behind the protests, said Poland is just one element in a global struggle where democracies face a challenge from fundamentalist and authoritarian forces.
Whatever happens now in Poland will be crucial for democracy worldwide, says Suchanow, the author of “This is War: Women, Fundamentalists, and the new Middle Ages,” a book on international ultra-conservative groups that want to ban all abortions.
The groups say they are fighting to preserve traditional families, and also fight same-sex marriage.
The slogan “This is War” has been repeated often on banners carried at the protests in Poland.
Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive laws, hammered out in 1993 between political and Catholic church leaders. It allowed abortions only in the cases of fetal defects, risk to the woman’s health and incest or rape.
It was born from difficult negotiations after the fall of communism, when the Soviet bloc countries had liberal abortion laws. The church, long repressed by the communist regime, sought a full ban in line with its view that all life must be protected from the moment of conception.
Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former left-wing president, said this week: “It seems to me that in 1993, it was the only possible compromise.”
However, neither side has ever been satisfied with the 1993 law.
Earlier attempts by the conservative ruling party to replace it with a blanket ban on abortions were met with enormous street protests in 2016 and 2017, and shelved.
The government appears to have calculated that it could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under its political control to do the job — during the pandemic.
If so, the plan has backfired.
The ruling Law and Justice party won a second term in 2019 and President Andrzej Duda, a party ally, was re-elected this summer. With three years to go before the next elections, it seemed the right time to push through an unpopular move that is widely understood as a reward to the church and ultraconservative groups for their political support.
While a large majority of Poles disapprove of the court ruling, some of the protesters’ methods have also met with disapproval, including vulgar language, vandalizing churches and disrupting Masses.
“If they continue that way, they will lose support,” said Marcin Zaborowski, a political analyst and author with Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe.
The Court’s Authority
The Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled to restrict abortion, is itself the product of a separate controversy: the ruling party’s takeover of the courts, an issue at the heart of a 5-year standoff with the European Union.
Of 15 judges on the court, 14 were picked by Law and Justice for nine-year terms, three of them chosen in a manner that violates Polish law.
This has led some legal scholars to declare that the court itself is illegitimate and that the abortion ruling has no legal validity. Many critics now refer to the court as “Julia Przylebska’s tribunal,” a reference to the court president who is a Law and Justice party loyalist.
“This is an ineffective ruling from the constitutional court. It has no legal consequences,” said Michal Wawrykiewicz, a lawyer with Free Courts, an initiative fighting for rule of law.
Wawrykiewicz said the ruling is likely to unleash legal chaos because the government will treat it as legally binding but many doctors will not. If doctors are sued for performing abortions of damaged fetuses, they will be sued in lower courts, where judges have maintained a large degree of independence and can be expected to rule in their favor. Ultimately the issue will need to be resolved by the EU’s Court of Justice.
A Youth Revolt
While traditionally conservative, Poland has also been undergoing massive social changes under the influence of EU membership, which has led many Poles to travel and study abroad, and of popular culture influences such as Netflix.
The protests of the past week have been dominated by young people, who believe that the abortion ruling infringes on their liberties.
Dominika Stankiewicz, a 26-year-old who was handing out protest stickers and posters in Warsaw’s Mokotow district on Thursday, said abortion is the only issue that has ever brought her to the streets to protests.
“This is too much right now,” she said.
What Happens Next?
With society in upheaval, people are discussing ways out.
President Andrzej Duda on Friday proposed a bill that would allow abortions in cases where the fetus is so deformed that it could not survive after birth, but ban them for Down syndrome.
Women’s rights activists and opposition politicians immediately condemned that idea.
Protest organizers are now pushing for the government to resign and a liberal abortion law to be passed — though neither seem like realistic prospects now.
Some people are saying that the matter should be decided in a referendum.