Protesters outside the house of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, demonstrate against the tightening of the country’s abortion law, in Warsaw last week
Protesters outside the house of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, demonstrate against the tightening of the country’s abortion law, in Warsaw last week © Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty

Under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, and circumventing the Polish parliament, Poland’s constitutional tribunal has passed a near total ban on abortion in a country that already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Any woman who discovers she is carrying a foetus with severe abnormalities will now have to give birth, even if the child has no chance of surviving.

If Poland’s rightwing establishment was calculating that the ban would slip through unnoticed while the pandemic raged, it has made a bad mistake. The ruling, on October 22, provoked the widest protests since the fall of communism in 1989, mostly by young people.

Demonstrations have continued daily across cities and towns, even in conservative rural areas. The Law and Justice party, which heads the ruling coalition and governs in the name of conservatism and religion, might have just sparked the moral revolution Poland never had, if young people now abandon the Church. 

The ban has its origins in Poland’s transition from communism in 1989, when new governments sought to re-establish the pre-communist order. Religion was reintroduced into schools and the symbol of the crown was restored to the head of the eagle in the national emblem.

One of the casualties of that shift was abortion freedoms. Under communism, which (superficially at least) protected women’s rights, abortion had been legal since 1956. In the post-communist era, these rights began to be eroded. In 1993, a new law was passed preserving the right to an abortion only in cases of rape and incest, if the mother’s life was endangered or in case of serious foetal abnormalities. Abortion for social considerations, however — the most common reason women had sought a termination — was banned. 

The rolling back of women’s freedoms was a side-effect of the anti-communist moral revolution. Now, out of the 100,000-150,000 abortions that women’s organisations estimate Polish women have each year, only about 1,000 are legally performed in Poland. Underground abortions and trips abroad are common. 

Previous attempts to tighten abortion laws still further have been defeated in parliament. But, this time, the government has used the Constitutional Tribunal, which it has been packing with loyal judges since 2015. Americans should take note. 

There have been big steps towards greater individual liberty since 1989. New ideas of individual liberty have arrived and the Polish Church’s moral authority is eroding. Religious leaders have tried to paint the Church as an underdog, besieged by dark forces of gender fluidity, the LGBTQ movement and western “nihilism”.

But that story does not wash with many Poles. Over the past year and a half, two documentary films about paedophilia in the Church, Tell No One and Hide and Seek, made revelations that shocked viewers. Allegations about cover-ups by bishops and other authorities have shaken public trust. Nor does the narrative of a poor Church swamped by western capitalism ring true.

Opinion polls last year showed Poles rejected tightening the abortion law. The ruling coalition went ahead anyway. Now women from small towns who might have never dreamt of political rebellion have been confronted with the question: do I want clergymen, who have been covering up the rape of children, to decide such an intimate moral issue as the outcome of my pregnancy?

A political awakening is under way. People who have never been involved in civic unrest are joining the protests. Apostasy — the formal renunciation of religion — has become the word of the moment. Polish streets now have the atmosphere of the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris: festive, furious and transgressive. In scenes that last year would have seemed shocking, young people routinely chant abuse at sclerotic ministers, at the clergy and against the propaganda that is rife in the national television media. 

The author of this mess, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, once said that the way to de-Christianise Poland was to allow radical Catholicism to dominate. He is now fulfilling his own prophecy. Most Poles are not religious fanatics. They don’t like it when the Church strays too far into politics, as it has been doing for years. Now, finally, it is paying the price.

The writer is a Polish novelist and playwright

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