WARSAW — The explosion of popular fury that greeted a court ruling tightening abortion rules has stunned Poland’s nationalist government and left it with few palatable options to exit the crisis.
For now, the government is trying to calm the situation by refusing to publish the October 22 verdict by the Constitutional Tribunal. That prevents the ruling from going into effect, but raises constitutional questions as such decisions are supposed to be published “immediately.”
“At this moment we need calm and discussion on this verdict, a quieting of social emotions and calm discussion among experts,” government spokesman Piotr Mūller told Polish media on Tuesday.
However, calm is the last thing that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is getting.
The country has seen some of the biggest demonstrations in decades as people took to the streets to protest the tribunal’s ruling — which found that abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality violate the Polish constitution. That would outlaw most of the already tiny number of legal abortions in Poland; there were only 1,110 last year.
“I’m a woman and a mother and that’s why I’m here,” said Monika Nowicka, 32, holding up a sign reading “Fuck a Duck” — a play on the last name of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, which sounds like the Polish word for “duck,” during a huge protest on Friday night. Kaczyński’s house in northern Warsaw has become a magnet for protesters.
The problem for Kaczyński is that the tribunal that issued the ruling is tightly under his party’s control — its chief justice Julia Przyłębska is a personal friend. Because many Poles don’t see the tribunal as an independent body — a view shared by many European institutions — that strips the verdict of legitimacy. Many see the timing of the ruling as part of a political ploy by Kaczyński to shore up PiS’s position on the right flank of Polish politics.
But the vehemence and scale of the demonstrations surprised PiS and its allies.
“No one expected such protests,” Jadwiga Emilewicz, a senior member of a conservative party allied with PiS, told Polish television.
But the ruling party doesn’t have an easy exit.
Strongly anti-abortion MPs are pressing the government to publish the verdict so it can go into force, a stance backed by the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
President Andrzej Duda, a close PiS ally who has also spoken out forcefully against abortion, has put forward a revamped abortion law that would allow the procedure in cases where prenatal diagnosis shows a “high probability” of the fetus being stillborn or being born with a condition “leading inevitably and directly to death.”
But the All-Polish Women’s Strike, the movement behind the protests, rejected Duda’s effort.
“You won’t get people off the streets with another bill banning abortion,” the group said on its Facebook page. “Man! Social anger has exploded and you and the government are only adding oil to the fire.”
Duda has also come under fire from the church.
Stanisław Gądecki, the head of the Polish Conference of Bishops, on Wednesday denounced Duda’s idea as “a new form of euthanasia.”
PiS and its allies only have a thin parliamentary majority, making it difficult to push through Duda’s bill — or any other abortion legislation.
While Kaczyński hunts for a way out, opinion polls show a steep fall in support for both PiS and Duda.
In an effort to blunt the scale of the protests, the government is warning that the marches could spread the coronavirus. Cases are soaring, with Poland noting a record 24,692 infections on Wednesday and 373 deaths.
“I’m asking everyone who wants to protest to please protest on the internet,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday, while announcing a new round of restrictions to try to bring the pandemic under control.
Kaczyński and his allies are also denouncing the protesters as anti-Polish. Krystyna Pawłowicz, another Constitutional Tribunal justice who is a close political ally of Kaczyński, compared the red lightning flash that’s become the symbol of the women’s movement to the jagged marks of Hitler’s SS units.
But that’s just stiffening the will of the demonstrators and deepening the splits in what’s already a very divided country.
“I’ll be here as long as needed. We can’t retreat now,” said Nowicka before walking off in the direction of Kaczyński’s house.
Poland’s government backed into a corner over abortion The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Politico.