Abortion Ban Turns Women Into Enemy of the State in Poland

Poland’s most powerful politician is used to targeting what he sees as the nation’s enemies, whether liberal “elites” or the gay community. Now he’s turned on protesters against a law effectively banning abortion.

But as he stares down mounting anger, Law & Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s message to the country this week underscored how the latest battle in Poland’s culture war risks becoming the biggest threat to the populist government since it came to power five years ago.  

Demonstrations against making one of Europe’s tightest abortion laws even more restrictive are morphing into a wider show of defiance as the authorities struggle to get a grip on the coronavirus pandemic.

With at least 100,000 people marching in Warsaw on Friday—the biggest gathering since the protests began—the standoff looks like a critical moment for a government that’s been taking control over all facets of society in the name of ordinary Poles and Catholic traditions.

The trigger was an Oct. 22 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, a panel whose members are mainly party appointees, in a case raised by Law & Justice lawmakers and their allies. It said abortions are unconstitutional even when the fetus doesn’t stand a chance of living outside the womb.

Activists said carrying such pregnancies to term amounted to “torture” and protests erupted. Crowds of mostly women screamed obscenities at the government and held homemade signs ranging from “Enough Is Enough” to “Women’s Hell” and “This Is War.” On Wednesday, women went on a one-day strike and held 410 separate demonstrations across Poland in which nearly half a million people participated.

Kaczynski, 71, branded pro-choice protesters “nihilists” while the state television channel referred to them as “left-wing fascists” and “bearded women.” He called on his party faithful to stop any protesters targeting religious buildings after some services were disrupted and graffiti painted on the walls of shrines last weekend.

“We have to defend churches, we have defend them at any price,” Kaczynski, who returned to government as deputy prime minister this month, said in a video message on Wednesday. “This attack is aimed at destroying Poland.”

Abortion Ban Turns Women Into Enemy of the State in Poland

The abortion ruling ended what’s essentially been a political truce on the issue for almost three decades. While the outcry doesn’t appear capable of toppling the government, it may cause lasting damage should protests escalate just as the pandemic appears to be getting out of control in a country that was relatively unscathed until recently.

The government has said the court’s judgment is independent. The timing, though, might help regain support from more conservative factions that defected to parties further to the right in this year’s presidential election. Support for Law & Justice has fallen to 26%, the lowest since 2015 and down from 36% at the start of the month, according to a poll by Kantar.

It also gives Law & Justice an opportunity to shift blame for the spike in virus infections, currently rising at one of the fastest paces in Europe and with hospitals at risk of getting overrun. The state broadcaster on Thursday declared there was a “virus cloud over protesters” and that the “opposition is endangering Polish lives” by encouraging the demonstrations.

“What they’re doing is deplorable, attacking us instead of fighting the virus and seeking to make this into a religious issue,” Gabriela Lewandkowska, a 22-year-old university student, said during a demonstration in Warsaw. “Although I’m not sure that I could go through with an abortion myself, I feel they’ve taken something from me—my freedom, my choice.”

Abortion Ban Turns Women Into Enemy of the State in Poland

The immediate challenge for Kacznyski and his party is to somehow ensure the protests peter out.

Poland’s chief prosecutor told his staff to charge protest organizers with jeopardizing public health, a crime punishable by up to eight years in jail. President Andrzej Duda, meanwhile, is working on legislation that would allow abortions in cases of lethal damage to the fetus and the government said it wanted to pass the bill quickly in the hope of calming the tension.

Lingering discontentment might become more problematic as a deteriorating economy threatens to undermine key promises on social spending that have underpinned support for the government, according to Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics and contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex in England. Playing up the threat to churches is a way of shifting the narrative, he said.

“The conjunction of things happening at the moment is potentially very significant,” said Szczerbiak. “You have the pandemic and a crisis that has developed clear momentum and pulled in a lot of people.”

Abortion Ban Turns Women Into Enemy of the State in Poland

Flashing blue lights of police vehicles contrasted the occasional red flare lit by the demonstrators in Warsaw. The tension was most palpable near churches. Some were surrounded by several rings of defense involving self-appointed volunteers, police officers with shields and military police.

Following Kaczynski’s comments, a radical fringe group using a Nazi-style emblem said that it’s organizing “national brigades” comprised of “political soldiers ready to defend national and Catholic values through direct action.” A day later, there were attacks on protesters in cities including Wroclaw, Poznan and Bialystok.

On Friday, three separate marches converged in central Warsaw. Police had to intervene to keep apart the pro-choice demonstrators and far-right groups seeking to disrupt the event. Officers detained more than a dozen people they called “football hooligans” who threw flares at protesters and the authorities. Organizers had told demonstrators earlier to expect provocation.

“The real problem for Law & Justice is if they lose control of this,” Szczerbiak said before the latest events. “It’s very difficult to know which way this will go.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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