WARSAW, Poland — Polish women are declaring victory in a dramatic showdown that pitted them against an anti-abortion group and the conservative government this week. Three days after the women donned black, boycotted work and staged giant street protests, lawmakers on Thursday voted overwhelming against a complete ban on abortion — a proposal they had supported just two weeks earlier.
The victory merely maintains the status quo, which is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, but feminists hope they have gained the momentum to attack that next.
Agnieszka Graff, a prominent feminist commentator, said she and other feminists have struggled in vain for years to reach younger Polish women, and that this was the first time she has seen them mobilized in huge numbers.
“The feeling on the street was revolutionary. Women were angry but they were also elated at seeing how many of us there were. The black clothes created this secret-but-open signal that connected strangers on the street,” Graff said.
While the women protested to defend the current law, she believes there is a good chance the events might have the paradoxical result of creating “a whole generation of pro-choice women.”
Members of the ruling Law and Justice party voted two weeks ago to consider the proposal — brought to parliament by an anti-abortion group — sending it to a parliamentary commission for further consideration. At the same time, they voted to refuse to consider a separate proposal to liberalize the law.
In a complete reversal, lawmakers voted 352-58 on Thursday to reject the proposal. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned lawmakers that further restrictions risked bringing about the “exact opposite effect.”
Whether the women activists are able to maintain their momentum still remains to be seen — sometimes revolutions peter out in the long, hard slog of bringing social change.
But certainly abortion is a matter of widespread debate in a way that it hasn’t been since 1993, when the current law took force after difficult negotiations between religious and secular Poles. Often referred to as a “compromise,” the law bans abortion in most cases, but does make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, when the woman’s life is in danger or the fetus is badly damaged.
In practice, though, many doctors are declared conscientious objectors who refuse to perform even legal abortions. Polish women seeking abortions — those who can afford it — typically get them in Germany or other neighboring countries, or order abortion pills online.
The proposal for further tightening the law came from a citizens’ initiative that gathered some 450,000 signatures in this nation of 38 million. While supported by some conservative Catholics, it was highly unpopular with most Poles, with people balking at the idea that a teenage rape victim should be forced to have her baby, or that a woman whose health was badly compromised would be forced to carry to term. The proposal also called for prison terms of up to five years for women who sought abortions. The only case in which a doctor could intervene in a woman’s pregnancy would be if the woman were dying and required an emergency intervention to save her life.
With abortion already illegal in most cases, many women said what frightened them the most in the proposal was that it could have led doctors to be afraid to perform prenatal tests or that women who suffered miscarriages could fall under criminal suspicion.
That is what prompted Karolina Lignar-Paczocha, 37, to don black on Monday, and — after dropping her 2-year-old daughter off at nursery school — join other women at a protest in front of the ruling party headquarters in Warsaw.
“I had the very bitter experience of having a miscarriage a few times and it’s horrible to think a woman who suffers that would be questioned and fall under suspicion,” said Lignar-Paczocha, a sociologist. “I would never want my daughter to face something like this.”
Even worse, she said, would be the pressure a tougher law could have put on doctors to withhold prenatal tests like amniocentesis, which can detect birth defects including Down Syndrome. The proposal called for prison terms for doctors whose actions could result in abortions, and many feared that doctors would not want to administer such a test, which in itself carries a small risk of miscarriage, and whose results prompt some women to seek abortions.
What she wasn’t fighting for was a more liberal abortion law, saying that she was at peace with the current compromise.
That law marks a huge change from the communist era, when abortions were easily available and cheap. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when abortions were mostly banned in Sweden, Swedish women would even make the trip across the Iron Curtain into Poland for abortions.
The fact that today it is Polish women who cross in the other direction was an irony noted during an emotional debate Thursday evening in the European Parliament on the situation of women in Poland.
The law of1993 was part of a broader moral backlash in this mostly Catholic country against the “godless communism” that the nation had only recently shaken off.
Only time will tell if the tide of history is turning yet again.