On October 2, thousands of activists marched in Poland in protest of the nation’s repressive abortion laws. The next day, Polish police invaded the offices of two feminist groups—seizing files and computers and shutting down their operations.
The Women’s Rights Centre, which advocates for legal and policy changes to ensure equal rights for all genders, and Baba, which fights domestic and sexual violence, had participated in the actions marking the anniversary of the “Black Protest”—a historic action in which activists dressed in all black fought the Polish Parliament’s attempt to pass a total abortion ban. Among the documents seized from their offices in Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, and Zielona Gora were sensitive documents that contained information on victims of abuse.
While the police stated that the raids were part of an investigation concerning Ministry Justice officers, activists at the targeted organizations remain strong in their condemnation of what they see as the state’s attempt to intimidate anti-authoritarian forces and destroy historical records necessary for their work. Activists reported that the police occupied their offices for up to nine hours, interfering with their daily work and disrupting their pro-choice organizing.
“We have the impression they are afraid of women’s protest and want to find out all possible methods to devalue the Polish women’s grassroots solidarity movement,” Executive Director at Poland Fed for Women & Family Planning, Krystyna Kacpura, said in a statement to The Independent. “They also want us to be afraid of possible repression from the government’s side. It started with women’s NGOs working on violence against women and funded by the government in previous years.”
Marta Lempart, the head of Polish Women’s Strike—the group that organized the protests—echoed those sentiments in a statement to the Associated Press. “This is an abuse of power because,” she said, “even if there is any suspicion of wrongdoing, an inquiry could be done in a way that doesn’t affect the organization’s work.”
“We understand that the police actions came in the context of an investigation against former staff of the Ministry of Justice,” said Barbora Cernusakova, an Amnesty International researcher focused on Poland, “but the NGOs, and the women and girls they support, will suffer the consequences.” Recognizing the uncanny timing and dangerous ramifications of the raids, she called the police operations “very worrying.”
Journalists and activists alike have pointed out that Poland may be following in the footsteps of its neighbor Hungary, whose prime minister sanctions harassment of non-governmental groups. With 216 seats in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, 56 in the Senate and a close affiliation with the Catholic church, the Law and Justice party (PiS) currently holds the most power in Polish political control. Marked by notably xenophobic and authoritarian ideologies, PiS has been described as a far-right, ethno-nationalist, populist party. Along with expressing openly anti-gay sentiments, the party continuously advocates for extremely limited reproductive rights and attempted to implement a total abortion ban in the country last year.
While that ban failed to pass—in large part due to the aforementioned “Black Protest”—Poland continues to have some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, where anti-abortion sentiment is on the rise. Abortion is only allowed in cases of rape or incest, although access to these services is strikingly limited. According to the Federation for Family Planning in Poland, only 1,000 legal abortions were performed in the country in 2015—and, as a result, the number of illegal (read: incredibly dangerous) abortions in 2015 is estimated at approximately 150,000.
Poland’s ultra-conservative Minister of Health, Konstanty Radziwill, has championed the so-called “conscience clause”—a loophole allowing Catholic doctors to deny a patient treatment if it goes against their own ideology. This practice has led to women being denied abortions even in supposedly legal cases. In addition, Radziwill recently made emergency contraception available only through prescription, whereas it is available over the counter in all other European countries. “I am a doctor myself,” he once stated, “and I would refuse to give it to a girl that had been raped.”
The Polish police’s invasions of women’s rights group falls in line with historical patterns of authoritarian rule that denies women their reproductive justice—and it’s a clear political attack against Polish activists fighting for reproductive rights by their state. As the Women’s Rights Centre explained in a statement: “We are afraid that this is just a pretext or warning signal to not engage in activities not in line with the ruling party.” Ignoring that signal may lead to further trouble—but heeding it will cost women’s lives.