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‘It Is a Desperate Cry’: Thousands Strike Over Poland’s Anti-Abortion Bill

Oct 4 2016 2:03 PM
‘It Is a Desperate Cry’: Thousands Strike Over Poland’s Anti-Abortion Bill

Pro-choice protesters on Black Monday in Krakow, Poland. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Monday, thousands of Polish women walked out on their jobs in a nationwide protest against proposed laws to ban abortion. We spoke to the protesters and organizers of Black Monday.

Thousands of women in Poland went on a nationwide strike on Monday over proposals to effectively abortion in the country. Dressed in all black, they boycotted their jobs and university classes and took to the streets of over 60 Polish cities, waving black flags with slogans like "You may call us witches, but you can't burn us all" and "I won't give birth if I'm dead." Solidarity demonstrations were also held all over the world, including Germany, Australia, the UK, France, and Kenya.

October 3, dubbed Black Monday or #czarnyprotest on social media, was organized in response to the Stop Abortion bill, which would heavily restrict abortion access in Poland. The country already has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Terminations are only permitted in three circumstances: if the mother's life is in danger, the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or if the fetus shows signs of a serious genetic disease.

Under the new proposals, abortion would be punishable with a five-year prison sentence, and doctors found to have assisted with a termination would be liable to prosecution and prison time.

The bill was first submitted to parliament as a citizen's initiative by the conservative Stop Abortion coalition after gaining 450,000 signatures. It has since received support from the Polish Catholic Church and right-wing politicians. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has already put forward the proposal for debate in parliament.

Read more: In Europe, Thousands of People Hit the Streets to Support Reproductive Rights

If the bill is signed into law, critics fear that it will drive women to seek underground abortions in a country where the procedure is already extremely difficult to access. In fact, studies have shown that banning abortion doesn't actually reduce abortion rates at all. Polish women's groups currently estimate that up to 150,000 terminations are performed every year illegally or abroad.

Lawyer Marta Lempart first floated the idea of a Black Monday strike during her speech at a Wrocław pro-choice demonstration in late September. She says she did not expect it to gather such momentum in such a short time.

"I don't think I've slept at all in the past week," says Lempart, who is also a member of the Polish civil organization Committee for the Defence of Democracy. "I've met dozens of wonderful, brave and wise women and men. I've received thousands of supportive messages from people involved in the strike. Whatever happens, no one can take that away from me.

"On another hand, she adds, "I also became a target of online abuse, but I guess that's unfortunately a given."

Women protesting in Gdansk, Poland. Photo by Gosia Dembska

Black Monday was inspired by a 1975 Icelandic strike in which an estimated 90 percent of women refused to show up to work or take care of the house. But while the 70s event was preceded by months of preparation, Poland's Black Monday was organized in exactly a week over social media.

"[It was] the fastest growing Polish Facebook event in history," Lempart claims. Countless local initiatives were launched: Women printed out posters and leaflets in their own homes, and bought megaphones to spread the word about the planned strike from their cars.

The campaign was met with sneers from some politicians. When asked about Black Monday, Polish foreign minister and Law & Justice MP Witold Waszczykowski responded, "Let them have fun."

I have one thing to thank the authors of the anti-abortion policy proposal for: Awakening that feeling of female solidarity in me.

But others were quick to lend their support. A number of shops and public institutions were also forced to close thanks to the strike, or did so voluntarily in solidarity with the protesters. In the Polish city of Słupsk, Mayor Robert Biedroń Instagrammed a picture of his closed office door with the caption, "'City Hall's quiet today. Whole departments are shut down. We ask you for your understanding. We stand with #czarnyprotest."

In Warsaw, City Hall estimates that around 30,000 people protested on Castle Square in the capital city. At least ten bus lines had to be stopped or redirected because of the protest.

Olga Siemieńczuk, a 27-year old classical singer, went to the demonstration on Castle Square half an hour before it was scheduled to start. Even by then, she says, the crowd surrounding the neighboring area of Warsaw's Old Town was so large that she struggled to push her way through.

"It's so encouraging to see this level of solidarity," she tells Broadly. "Obviously there were many university and high school students there, but also a lot of older and middle-aged people. Many brought small children with them."


Watch: The Abortion Pill

Siemieńczuk added that the strike was about more than just access to abortion. "It is a desperate cry for better sex education, and for the government to encourage people to raise children by providing good welfare and social services, not by force."

Men also attended the Warsaw demonstration to support the female strikers, with a few handing out provisions. On social media, male volunteers were photographed preparing bread, soup, stews, and even homemade sandwiches to give to protesters.

In Wrocław, the largest city in western Poland, a demonstration led by Marta Lempart, ended with crowd singing the chorus of a popular Polish song: "Freedom I love and understand, freedom I cannot give away."

When asked about who stood behind the strike, Lempart's answer was simple: Women.

Read more: Restricting Abortion Access is a Terrible Way to Fix Your Population Crisis

"Women from cities and towns much smaller than Warszawa or Wrocław," she elaborated. "Women working in NGOs—ones focusing on women's rights, but also other ones, such as Committee for the Defense of Democracy—and women not affiliated with any organizations. The nationwide strike was organized by women, not institutions.'

21-year-old student Arnika Konieczna put up posters about the protest and distributed information leaflets in the week preceding the strike. She says that Black Monday was a "great success."

"I'm a woman, and all the women who march like me—no matter where they're from, or what their life choices, interests, or sense of humour are—they are all like sisters to me at this moment," she says. "I have one thing to thank the authors of the anti-abortion policy proposal for: Awakening that feeling of female solidarity in me."

"I feel a bit like a suffragette of the 21st century," she adds. "I'm proud to be involved in making history by taking part in this protest. If I didn't do it, I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror."

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