Thousands of women in Poland and across Europe wore black and skipped work on Monday to protest a proposed law that would ban abortions under all circumstances, making the procedure a crime punishable by five years in prison.
Abortions are already illegal in Poland except in cases of rape or incest, a major fetal deformity, or a severe threat to the pregnant woman’s health. Under these circumstances, less than 2,000 legal abortions are performed each year in the country of more than 38 million, while tens of thousands of women get unsafe, illegal abortions at home or travel across borders for the procedure.
Strike organizers anticipated that up to 6 million women would participate in demonstrations on Monday, though reported numbers at individual demonstrations vary. Protesters at so-called “Black Monday” events are sending clothes hangers to Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and wearing black; counterprotesters that support the proposed ban are wearing white. A Newsweek Polska poll found that 74 percent of Polish residents support the existing abortion law and do not think it needs further restrictions.
“My mother is very Catholic, goes to church every Sunday, and is against abortion just because you might not want the child,” one strike supporter told the Guardian. “But she is against this law, because if a woman is raped, she will be treated worse than the man who raped her.”
The Catholic Church, which has a strong presence in Poland, supports the proposed total abortion ban, as does the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which is currently in power. But the bill came before parliament through a petition circulated by a right-wing activist organization; once it got more than 100,000 signatures, it was eligible for legislative consideration. On September 23, the parliament voted for the proposal to go before a committee, the last step before approval. Another PiS-backed bill currently under consideration would attack in vitro fertilization by prohibiting the freezing of embryos and making it illegal to fertilize multiple eggs at one time.
If the new abortion law passes, doctors who perform abortions could be imprisoned, making Poland’s abortion policy one of the world’s most draconian. Only Malta, El Salvador, Chile, and Nicaragua currently enforce abortion bans so strictly that a provider may be penalized if she performs an abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life. One Polish doctor told a Polish radio station that he can foresee a situation in which he’d have to let a woman with early pre-eclampsia die rather than intervene and deliver a nonviable fetus, which could count as illegal pregnancy termination and land him in prison for three years.
Polish lawmakers need only look at nations like El Salvador to see how a total abortion ban might play out. There, women are jailed after having miscarriages if medical practitioners get suspicious about how their bodies failed to bring a pregnancy to term. In one high profile 2013 case, the entire world watched as the Salvadoran government let a women teeter on the brink of death, all to avoid terminating a fetus that had developed without a brain. This is the oft-hidden barbarism at the heart of a “pro-life” politic that prizes abstract ideas about fertility and religion over women’s health and lives.