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Polish women strike against abortion ban on ‘Black Monday’

Janek Skarzynski, AFP | Black-clad Poles vent their anger in Warsaw on October 3, 2016, as they take part in a nationwide strike against plans to completely ban abortion.

Women in Poland went on strike on Monday – shunning work, school and domestic chores – to protest against plans for a total ban on abortion in a country where rules on pregnancy terminations are already very restrictive.

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Organisers have dubbed the event “Black Monday” and urged women to wear black as a symbol of mourning for the loss of their rights.

The protest is inspired by a women’s strike in Iceland in 1975, which demanded equal rights for women and paved the way for landmark legislation on gender parity.

The proposal for the total ban on abortion, and the outrage it has sparked, are the latest example of deepening social tensions under Poland's conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which took power last year on a promise of more conservative values in public life.

The proposed legislation was put forward by a citizens' initiative and pushed by ultra-Catholic groups, gathering 450,000 signatures. On Monday, its advocates staged counter-protests dressed in white.

But while many in Law and Justice profess a strong allegiance to the Catholic Church, they are divided over further restricting the abortion law.

Polish law on abortion is already really strict,” said Gulliver Cragg, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Warsaw. “It’s illegal except when the pregnancy is the result of a rape, or when the infant is severely ill, or when the pregnancy represents a threat to the life of the mother.”

“This bill would remove those three exceptions,” Cragg added.

If approved, the total abortion ban could entail prison terms of up to five years for women seeking abortions and doctors who perform them.

The proposal is now being examined by a parliamentary commission, which may yet amend it. A vote is not expected for weeks.

'All progressives must unite against abortion bill'

A separate citizens' initiative presented to parliament had called for a liberalisation of the abortion law, allowing the procedure up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, but lawmakers voted not to discuss that proposal.

“Of course Law and Justice, as well as other right-wing parties, said this proposal was impossible, and now they are working only on the ‘stop abortion’ proposal,” said Paulina Piechna-Wieckiewicz of Poland's left-wing SLD party.

She told FRANCE 24 she was heartened by strong turnouts at recent protests, including a rally outside Poland’s parliament in Warsaw on Saturday.

“A lot of women and men who had never protested before are now determined to protest every day. I hope the Polish government will see that they are a majority of Poles and not just a small group of leftist organisations,” she said.

‘We want the same rights across Europe’

While it was difficult to gauge participation in small towns and rural areas, which tend to be conservative, turnout in the cities appeared to be significant on Monday.

A large crowd gathered in central Warsaw holding up signs including "My body, My choice," as well as coat hangers – a symbol of dangerous illegal abortions which protesters fear could become more common.

The private news broadcaster, TVN24, with some of its own newscasters in black, showed images of establishments joining the strike, including a museum in Krakow where none of the women showed up to work.

In Czestochowa, a symbol of the country's Catholicism due to the presence of a major shrine, more than 60 percent of employees refused to show up to work, according to TVN24. City employees responsible for providing essential services came to work wearing black.

Demonstrations also took place in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, with protesters sporting black clothes in solidarity with Polish women.

The divisive issue poses a dilemma for Poland’s ruling party. It could antagonise the powerful Catholic Church if it fails to back the legislation, or trigger even more protests if it does.

PiS officials have been quoted in local media saying the party may introduce its own proposal in parliament to restrict access to abortion, without resorting to a complete ban.

Official statistics show several hundred legal abortions are conducted in Poland each year. But activists say many women are denied access to the procedure when doctors invoke a legal right to decline to perform it on moral or religious grounds.

Tens of thousands are done illegally, with many women crossing the border to Germany or Slovakia to obtain the procedure. Critics of the new proposal say it will only increase the number of illegal abortions.

Piechna-Wieckiewicz called on all progressive forces to rally behind protesters in attempting to block the bill.

“We have to stick together, liberals and social democrats, every man and every woman who is in favour of women’s rights,” she said, adding that Poland’s opposition would bring the case before European justice should lawmakers press ahead with the anti-abortion bill.

“Europe has to react to what is going on in Poland and elsewhere on the continent,” she said. “We need the same rights for women across Europe.”

 

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