Polish women strike back at church and state over abortion

Polish women staged magnificent demonstrations and strike action all over the country on Monday 3 October. They are fighting against a proposed law that would ban abortion under all circumstances, even in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. Even in this country where the Catholic Church is so powerful, and where the right-wing Law and Justice party won power just a year ago, the spirit of struggle is alive and explosive.

Curtailing democratic rights

The proposed law has been brought forward by a petition started by an anti-abortion group and backed by Poland’s powerful Catholic church, which gathered 450,000 signatures. The proposal is to tighten the abortion law in a country where it is already extremely difficult to terminate a pregnancy. The Polish parliament approved the proposed law at its first reading, while simultaneously rejecting a counter-proposal to liberalise the availability of abortion.

Although this is not a government sponsored proposal, and in fact the government has had to distance itself and publically oppose the law in the face of such determined opposition, many in the Law and Justice government do actually support the proposals.

This is despite the fact that only 14% of Poles are in favour of strengthening the ban on abortion, meanwhile 25% want greater access to abortion, with 42% saying there shouldn’t be a change to the current law. This public opposition is all the more significant given that it is in the face of a huge church and state propaganda campaign against allowing women to choose what to do with their own bodies, which is a fundamental democratic right.

Reaction emboldened

Since the election of the Law and Justice party last year, reactionary social forces in the country have been emboldened, leading to this anti-abortion petition. This is shown in the struggle that has opened up between the Polish Catholic Church and the Vatican over the last year.

Roughly one year ago Pope Francis announced that priests would be allowed to forgive the sin of abortion. This is part of the Vatican’s cynical project to reshape the Church’s image as a cuddly and caring institution, after a string of financial and paedophilia scandals were exposed.

This move enraged the extreme conservative elements in the Church, of which there are a high number in Poland. The Polish episcopate responded in April this year by having an appeal read out in all churches that demanded full legal rights for all foetuses from the moment of conception. The petition and proposed law are a direct result of that appeal.   

However, as we explained at the time, the Law and Justice election victory last year was not the product a shift to the Right in the social and political opinions of Polish people. It was the result of Poles searching for an alternative to the eight years of Liberal Platform government which has dramatically increased inequality. The absence of a left-wing alternative brought Law and Justice to power.

This explains the apparently contradictory phenomenon of Law and Justice being ahead in the polls, while simultaneously being the target of massive protests and strike action. When people voted for Law and Justice, they were voting against the establishment that had dominated their lives for years - but they were not voting for attacks on women and other reactionary social policies that these right-wing politicians promote.

The anti-abortion law which is particularly crude and barbaric, coming on top of years of accumulated frustrations, raised the resentment to new levels. In this context and in the absence of a strong working class party, the call for action of a relatively obscure organisation struck a chord with the underlying mood amongst the masses. In fact, the “women’s strike” was actively and passively supported by large parts of the working class and beyond. Had the call for action been made by a strong working class organisation and for all workers to come out, instead of women only, the protests could probably have been even bigger. The most intelligent layers of the ruling class are very worried about such a development.

Power of protests

The government has been unable to ignore the scale of the protests. An estimated 100,000 people flooded the streets in cities across the country, dressed in black to represent the death of women’s rights and the potential future deaths of women who will be victims of this ban.

Shops and restaurants closed for the day in solidarity with the strike and to allow their female employees to participate in the strike, while women who went to work did so dressed head-to-foot in black. Meanwhile an Archbishop in Lodz fuelled the protests by publicly denouncing the protests as a manifestation of a “civilisation of death”, while the foreign minister described them as “marginal” and a “mockery”.

The Prime Minister was forced, first of all to distance herself from the comments made by the foreign minister and from the proposal as a whole, and later to say that the government would oppose the law in parliament. However, MPs will be given a free vote on the issue, and with a Law and Justice majority it is possible that the law could still come into effect.

Which way forward?

All of this comes as the Law and Justice government is ratcheting up tensions with the European Union over questions of the rule of law, the Polish constitution and migration, among other things. The European Parliament has seized the opportunity to take another dig at Law and Justice by holding a pointless debate on the proposed anti-abortion law (an issue about which it can do absolutely nothing), the sole purpose of which is to irritate the Polish government.

To a certain degree Law and Justice is currently thriving off its conflict with the EU, which it portrays as a struggle to take back control of the country for ordinary people, in a manner reminiscent of the Brexit campaign in Britain. The European Parliament sticking its oar into this debate will likely have, at best, no effect whatsoever, or at worst, the effect of strengthening support for Law and Justice.

In fact, as we can see it is the methods of mass struggle that are the only ones that can guarantee basic democratic rights and victory over right-wingers and conservatives. Mass action, collective struggle and strikes are the way forward, but what is still missing is working class organisations to coordinate these and spread them to the broadest possible layers.

The reactionary anti-abortion laws are not only an attack on women, but on the interests of all workers and youth by the ruling class. The moves towards reactionary social policies in Poland are, in the final analysis, the product of a search for a way out from the dead-end of capitalism on a global scale. Law and Justice is in power now, but will not be for long because it cannot solve any of the fundamental problems. It will be through mass struggle against the Right and against capitalism, and with a party based on such methods, that a real path out of the dead-end can be found.