In 2016, the Polish right-wing ruling party PiS (Law and Justice) proposed an outright ban on abortion, prompting thousands of women to take to the streets in what became known as #BlackProtest. In their wake, the government decided to fold the proposal—but not for long.
The Polish government proposed another ban on abortion, and launched another wave of protests, last July. And although the ban has not yet been signed into law, anti-abortion leaders in government and the Church show no signs of slowing down. Instead, they’re changing tactics—slowly and silently working to restrict a woman’s right to contraception and the morning after pill.
Poland already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Women can legally only terminate a pregnancy when the mother’s life is in danger, when the fetus may show signs of disease that are incompatible with life or if the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape. Polish women have therefore been forced to search for safer treatment abroad, a phenomenon that was referred to as “abortion tourism.” Even in cases where abortion is legal in Poland, it is extremely difficult to get one; doctors often refuse to perform the procedure and say it violates their beliefs.
The alternative is backstreet abortions. The result is a growing black market for critical reproductive health care. These options often end in death. Polish politicians and the Catholic church claim that an abortion ban would protect “unborn life,” but women’s lives seem to be of no concern to them.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016, just one year after Poland elected a right-wing government of its own, also had immediate consequences for Polish women. On the campaign trail, Trump said that women should be punished if they were to have an abortion; once elected, he re-instated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, putting health care providers around the world at risk of losing critical funding if they so much as mentioned abortion to their patients.
But change is possible—and women across Europe are determined to reclaim their rights. While Polish women marched on, lawmakers elsewhere took action. In May of 2018, Ireland voted to overturn the abortion ban in their country, making terminating pregnancy a right for all Irish women; in the wake of Trump’s Gag Rule, the Netherlands and a few other countries came together and raised funds to fill new gaps.
Poland will have the chance to usher in new leaders this year in two elections—and if we’ve learned one thing since 2016, it’s that the outcome will matter for women in the region and around the world. Protests and marches matter, but they’re more like trying to fight a disease once it’s already started. If we want to prevent the problem altogether, we’ll have to march to the polls.