By Jessica Sutton and Patrick McTague.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Poland in protest since Thursday 22nd October. The country’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortion in the case where a foetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect is unconstitutional. These cases account for 98% of the less than 2,000 legal abortions in Poland each year, effectively banning abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s life.
This is a major victory for the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) which has been trying to ban abortion since it took power in 2015. In 2016, a ban on abortion was put forward in parliament and led to a national women’s strike and protests of around 100,000 people across the country, organized within only two weeks. The government listened to its people in that instance and withdrew the legislation from parliament, but their fight was not over.
Over the last five years of power, PiS has stacked the tribunal with loyal judges, and this year the tribunal reviewed the abortion law based on a petition the government received. In this way, the government could use the judiciary as a channel for removing abortion rights, rather than the legislative option. And while they have obtained the ruling that they wanted, they have not prevented backlash from their people.
Some have speculated that PiS have waited for the COVID-19 pandemic to worsen in the country before referring the matter to the tribunal. As cases have spiked to over 10,000 a day (currently over 20,000), the government have announced tighter restrictions around public gatherings. But, as we have seen in Belarus and the United States in recent weeks, when injustice is rampant, the people will not stay quiet, regardless of pandemic conditions. On Wednesday 28th October, a nation-wide women’s strike attracted over 400,000 people to protest in over 400 towns and cities. And on Friday 30th October, about 100,000 people were protesting in the Polish capital of Warsaw alone.
With over half a million people protesting over two days, not to mention the other daily protests occurring, one must wonder why PiS would push for such unpopular abortion restrictions. The answer lies in the other power within the state, the Roman Catholic Church. A 2012 survey found that 93% of polish people consider themselves Catholic and 54% attend mass at least once a week. The Catholic Church holds enormous power in Poland and therefore political parties seek their endorsement. In 1993, the current abortion restrictions came into effect after direct intervention by Pope John Paull II despite 60% public opposition, and in recent years Pope Francis has said that abortion is always unacceptable. PiS and the Polish Catholic Church have strong ties and one of the main reasons is PiS’ commitment to restrict or ban abortion. With this strong tie and endorsement, PiS has a strong chance of staying in power in Poland.
The restriction of abortion rights is not isolated to Poland, and it is only the latest example in a global backslide in women’s rights. The UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights has recently stated in a report that we are seeing a “a multidirectional global avalanche of misogyny”. Abortion rights are being threatened in the United States, Turkey is seeing a massive wave of femicides, and both Turkey and Poland have indicated a desire to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention (a human rights treaty against violence against women and domestic violence).
The Poland tribunal ruling came the same day as the signing of an international anti-abortion declaration, The Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family. This declaration was signed by 33 “largely illiberal or authoritarian governments”. Only one of the countries, the United States, falls within the top 20 ranked countries on the Georgetown Women, Peace, and Security Index. It is also telling that 14 of the signatories fall within the bottom 30 ranked countries.
The Geneva Consensus has cherry-picked sentences and phrases from various UN General Assembly Resolutions, the Fourth World Conference on Women, and other UN meetings, to piece together statements which affirm their socially conservative views. It states that there is no international right to abortion, purportedly with the objective of better health for women, preservation of human life, strengthening of the family unit and protecting national sovereignty. It refers to women largely in relation to their role within the family, making no reference to women’s right as human beings to determine what happens to their own bodies.
In short, this declaration makes a mockery of women’s advancement and aims to relegate women to being second-class citizens whose primary function is to raise a family. The fact that the declaration has taken words from the Fourth World Conference on Women to argue against reproductive rights is an absolute outrage. The right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term is essential to gender equality. We should all be fighting to have these governments tear up this declaration and help women to live free from oppression.
This latest in powerful moves aimed at eroding women’s rights is likely not to be the last. If countries around the world continue to elect populist “strong-man” leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro, the backlash will only continue to get more severe. A lot of the progress that has been made will be undone. At the end of last year, the gender gap was predicted to take 100 years to close. Now, after the impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affecting women, gender equality is already likely to take far longer. We cannot afford to backslide on our progress if we want a chance of seeing equality in our, or even the next generation’s, lifetime.
 Human Rights Council Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights UN Doc A/72/155 (17 July 2017) at  and 13–20.