The fight for reproductive rights in Poland
Updated: Nov 18
Interviews with Dziewuchy Berlin, Zuzanna Dziuban and Anna Krenz
Questions by Phil Butland
Why is this topic important to you?
AK: As a Polish citizen, I am concerned about the political development in my homeland. I have many friends and family (and a house) as well as work partners in Poland. Therefore I am very interested in political, economic, health and cultural changes. In recent years the situation has become dramatic, as the PiS party has a parliamentary majority. Now nationalists walk down the streets and beat people up, as the church has become a bastion of hatred and hypocrisy. I love my homeland Poland, even though Poland does not love me. As a woman, I get really angry, when other women are being robbed of their basic human rights. As a feminist - I need to act!
Polish society has been divided - again, this time not on land as in historical times, over 200 years ago. But now the division is based on political views and runs through families and friends. This division will not disappear anytime soon. In the meantime, the government and other political (conservative / catholic) forces are destroying democracy and robbing people of freedom and basic rights. This all has gone too far at the moment.
ZD: I am an activist with 'Ciocia Basia', an informal, Berlin-based feminist collective, which supports people in Poland, and other countries where abortion is illegal, in gaining access to abortion in Germany. Ciocia Basia has existed for over 5 years and I have been active in the group for almost 3 years. My involvement in the group has political grounds: I believe that each and every person should have the right to decide over their own body and should have access to basic reproductive rights. Abortion is a human right.
I came from Poland and living in Germany means that, unlike in Poland, I can have access to abortion on demand up to 14 weeks – a privilege that people in Poland don’t have. I feel it is our responsibility and obligation to share this privilege with all those who don’t have it. It is a question of solidarity.
To be sure, I don’t agree with and I oppose restrictions on abortion in place in Germany, but still a 14 weeks limit is better than nothing. Access to abortion in Poland was almost entirely criminalized even before the recent decision of the constitutional tribunal. It was not illegal in only three situations: in case of rape; in case of risk to pregnant person’s life or health; and in case of severe fetal abnormalities. What this meant is that only 1% of actual abortions performed by people in Poland were carried out according to the restrictive law. All others, an estimate of around 100.000 a year, was carried out abroad, with the help of groups such as Ciocia Basia, at home with abortion pills, or in so called abortion underground. The new decision amounts to a total ban on abortion.
This does not mean that people won’t have abortions. They will. Many of them will be accommodated by abortion support groups abroad.
ZB: We want to raise awareness on the political situation in Poland through appearance in mass media, protests, actions, performances and collaboration with other feminist groups in Berlin. We also support Polish feminist organizations in their actions. Especially now, solidarity is crucial.
The Polish government has now delayed implementing a court ruling which would effectively ban abortion. How big a victory was this?
ZD: I find it very difficult to consider this a victory. It is just a postponement of a sentence aimed at waiting out, and containing the anger and resistance. Moreover, although the law has not yet been implemented, it has already had real consequences. Hospitals are canceling procedures or refusing to perform them. People who still have the right to legal abortion are looking for options abroad because a chance of finding a hospital or a doctor ready to go against the law that is not yet in power, are minimal.
To frame this as a victory means to misinterpret the reality on the ground. And it’s also politically useful for the proponents of anti-abortion laws. The ruling party already speaks about new ideas of abortion “consensus” making use of the fact that, from the point of view of the ban of abortions based on embryopathological (i.e. congenital malformations - ed) grounds, all softer options would look better. But they don’t and won’t.
Abortion activists and many people in Poland are not interested in and won’t be satisfied by any “consensus” proposed now by politicians. Abortion should be safe, legal and accessible – on demand. Whatever they offer now is simply not enough.
AK: It ain’t no victory at all!
The court ruling was not published, but that does not matter at all. Back in 2015, Prime minister Beata Szydło did not publish court ruling of the previous constitutional tribunal (not the latter fake one) - and still these rules went into power. This does not matter, that they did not publish the court sentence. [Editor's note: you can read more about the 2015 Polish Constitutional Court crisis here]
The only kind of victory might be that PiS is now falling apart, divided into the more fanatic members who are against abortion, and want to ban it completely - and people who would rather keep the “compromise” or just keep it quiet (Kaczyński).
DB: We did not win, the war is not over. The delay does not mean that it will not be implemented at a later date. Our current government is defining its very own rules and therefore their actions are unpredictable. At the time the Constitutional Tribunal announced its decision, people who were awaiting abortion on embryopathological grounds were sent home. They are already being denied the medical help they need. And you cannot pause a pregnancy. Nobody cares about those people now.
Moreover, due to the pandemic traveling abroad is now more difficult, so many abortions will be executed underground, at home, without taking required hygiene measures. This will now increase.
It is not a victory and arguably international media reporting it as such is exactly what PiS and their allies want.
What is the scale of the protests in Poland? What forms of action are being used?
AK: Protests have been taking place since 22.10. 2020. These are large demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of people, in big and small cities, in towns and villages. This is massive. People go to the streets almost every day. There were marches, demos, blockades, bicycle rallies, car rallies. People are making a lot of protest art, they screen images onto buildings, the creativity is endless, as it usually is in Poland.
DB: Since October 22nd, people have been out in the streets. Mass protests have been taking place all over Poland in big cities and small towns alike. The biggest protest so far happened on October 30th, where about 150,000 people blocked Warsaw. We are not giving up. We have to act and we have to be smart about it.
The pandemic is accelerating once again and there are regulations that limit our ways of protesting. We are trying to come up with various forms of protests: walks, demonstrations, performances, online solidarity actions, reaching out to other feminist groups, networking with activists in Poland, etc.
ZD: The scale is massive and this is truly moving. It has already been said that this is the biggest protest movement since the 1989 transition. It cuts across all strata of Polish society, all social and age groups. And it’s not limited to major urban centers but unfolds too, in small cities and rural areas. In this sense it is really unprecedented. In most cases the protests take form of illegal mass demonstrations which take places virtually every day and sometimes gather over 100,000 people as was the case in Warsaw. But I also very much appreciate the small-scale guerrilla actions performed in the cities. These cover walls and benches with stickers informing about access to medical abortion, where to order pills and how to take them, or abortion support groups.
In December 2019, Ciocia Basia joined a pan-European initiative, 'Abortion Without Borders', with abortion groups in Poland, UK, and the Netherlands. Since the beginning of the protests following the announcement of the verdict of the constitutional tribunal, the number of the Polish helpline of the initiative has become the most often chanted and sprayed phone number in Poland. This is important because amidst all the anger and fear the situation has created, the demonstrators in Poland carry the message of hope and resistance. The politicians and lawmakers may ban abortion in Poland but abortion will still be possible – just call this number - and you will be offered practical support.
What people are shouting in the streets is that we are taking back our reproductive rights, regardless of the inhumane legislation. I think many learned the lesson from the protests performed earlier this year by queer activists in Poland. In face of such severe violations of civil and human right, there is no space for dialog or negotiations on somebody else’s terms. It has to be made clear that enough if enough but also that we can count on each other.
The Berliner Zeitung has called Berlin the “hotspot of the Polish resistance”. How have you managed that and what have you been doing?
AK: I disagree with the article and especially the word “hotspot”. If the author googled a bit, he’d knew that 2016 was the hotspot moment, when 2000 people came to Warschauer Brucke for the Black Protest. I think it started back then. And these 4 years make a difference. Life and the world change so rapidly that even these 4 years are a lot.
In the meantime, we protested - almost every month there was an action or demo. We did not have so many from the Polish diaspora attending - but that is how it is - the majority is interested only when really big shit happens. The energy and anger comes from Poland, like a huge wave. But it is not only the big, the loud and the angry, that makes a successful protest. It is also the daily unseen work, making connections, making the boring things.
I would rather see this moment as another step, another chapter in a rather long Polish activist history of Berlin. It started (well, even before) but in the 1980s, when local Berlin chapters of Solidarność organised demos, exhibitions and physical help for Poland. Forgetting that chapter is kind of… not maybe disrespectful but ignorant. That history and the people who were active then, and who work with us today - it is only a cool heritage, an enrichment, and respect to history of the Polish diaspora.
I am one of the organisers of the 2-week-long Bloody Weeks, and many actions before. In 2017, I organised an exhibition in the Berlin gallery Schau Fenster, showing recent protest artefacts but also photos from the 1980s, from members of Solidarity, and I was happy to include their newest protest photos too.
I agree that Berlin is a hotspot for the Polish resistance, but it did not pop up yesterday. It has been a long work and process, which the author ignores. The only thing he mentions about us, organisers, is that it was not us who painted the U-Bahn. Shallow journalism.
ZD: There are very many Polish people who are politically engaged people and living in Berlin. It is not a surprise that in a moment like this they are taking their rage and solidarity to the streets. But this political engagement has, over many years, translated into variety of initiatives, groups and projects directed at support of discriminated groups in Poland, be it LGBTQ+ communities, minorities, or those structured around reproductive rights.
Ciocia Basia has been active for years and on a daily basis, through practical activisms, fights for the right of people from countries where abortion is illegal, to access safe abortions. Even though we are very busy now, we feel that it is our obligation to speak at the demos and simply be there because access to abortion and reproductive rights are at the heart of our political activism.
DB: Our collective started in 2016, when the first Black Protests were happening. So we are not new to activist work. Each member of our collective has a unique background, some have more experience in activist work, some have more proficiency in performative art, others are politically active. We all use our best skills to reach out to people to not only show our solidarity and support, but also to give them a safe space, where they can let out their frustration and anger. We want to invite people to find a way of protesting that suits them – and the diaspora is huge in Berlin - so we have kind of taken it on us to channel people’s frustrations.
After a couple of years of our existence on the Berlin activist scene, we have collected some contacts to people working in media, politicians, social workers, experts, artists, and more. This has helped us establish a network of people that oscillate around topics that in various degrees are connected to Poland.
And although our name means 'Gals4Gals', everyone is welcome to attend our actions or become a volunteer. We are open, diverse and authentic, maybe that is why we get support from the people around us.
The Polish media has also reported a fair bit on our activities, but that is because the head of the Constitutional Tribunal, Julia Przylebska, lives in Berlin - being married to the Polish Ambassador to Germany. So we have paid her a few visits to not let her escape to her comfortable existence in Dahlem after having set fire to Poland. Maybe this is part of the reason, as our activities here have also been very direct, and not just in solidarity with what is going on in Poland.
Are the protests just for choice or are they against other politics of the PiS government?
ZD: Yes, this is something that worries me a bit, the fact that the protests gradually loose focus on reproductive rights and became about the PIS and all the failed policies the government has implemented over the years. I totally understand that, as mass protests, they had to spread to accommodate multiple perspectives on abortion, and there are many incompatible positions even within the opposition. Some go to the streets to demand a return to 1993 “consensus”, some, as I do, to demand total decriminalization of abortion.
I am really happy to see that more and more people are leaning towards the second position – this is how it looks like, at least. But the decision of the constitutional tribunal has been for many just an incentive to protest the government, and some of those voices become louder than those of feminist activists, especially the voices of neoliberal and centrist male politicians. It would be lovely to have the PIS government overruled, the sooner the better, but not to end up in a situation which, from the perspective of the fight for reproductive rights, puts us back in a position from which we started: having to deal with restrictions imposed on our freedom of choice.
AK: Both and more. Abortion has always been a starting point, a spark, that flamed people’s anger and energy. It is not the first time, that people have go out onto the streets because of this. This spark - I also call it a ball, that little old men (Polish politicians) play. This spark always appears in difficult political times. Then, politicians take that ball, the society divides in to 2 groups (“teams”) and politicians can easily play against each other. It’s a shame, that it is about women’s bodies and souls. State patriarchy is so deep.
DB: Both. It is a complex issue, the frustration has been building up. The breaking point was the Polish Stonewall - a moment when LGBTQIA+ people started to fight back, protesting LGBT-free zones, which now make up half of the Polish territory, the abortion ban was the last straw. It concerns a bigger group of people. So now we are protesting not only the new regulations but we want to fight for our bodily autonomy, for the right to choose, for a judicial system that is not rigged by the ruling party, a state that is separate from the Catholic Church, the list goes on.
Sadly, there are people who do not understand the link between LGBTQIA+ right and the right to safe and legal abortion. Another thing is that some protesters are in the streets just to shout “fuck PiS”, but they do not care for the rights of people with uteruses and non-hetero-normative people. We cannot allow our message and the main cause of these protests to be lost in the chaos.
What has been the role of political parties and alliances like 'Razem' and 'Lewica'?
ZD: From where I stand, I can hardly say that this is their protest and their revolution. What is unfolding in Poland is a bottom-up revolution of feminist and queers, very tired of being told how to protest and what to demand. This is not to say that some of the politicians, especially women from Razem and Lewica, haven’t been there with and for the protesters. But I think that on the level of policy and political courage there is still a lot to be done.
AK: Apart from organising demos, taking selfies, marching… not much. There were some symbolic actions in the Polsih parliament - like women MPs wearing rainbow dresses, like women MPs making loud statements… there is a new idea coming now - another bill for liberating abortion, nothing new, but the time is right. Both RAZEM and Lewica are too small to make a difference, since PiS has the majority. Therefore it is crucial that die LINKE and Razem work together, also with other opposition parties.
What Lewica failed to do is… to talk to simple people, to farmers… to workers… it is a huge group, but was completely forgotten by opposition. All of the oppositon. That is why it was so sad to see, when conservative nationalist party 'Konfederacja' takes these people over.
DB: This has been interesting. The parties all seem to be treading a line between supporting the movement, and with trying to score political points off it. Razem, as part of the 'Left Coalition' (Lewica), have been very present – the MPs have been joining in the strikes across the country from the very first day. Lewica’s women MPs did a couple of actions in parliament, one of which was a visual one where they gathered with the Women*’s Strike symbols, kind of a harking back to their Pride flag action over the summer. Just a few days ago they also co-founded the Legislative Initiative Committee alongside the Women*’s Strike organisation, FEDERA and the Women’s Rights Centre, which aims to put together legislative projects regarding the liberalisation of the abortion law (i.e. full legalisation), improving access to contraception, and sex education. It’s a coalition of several groups working on the ground, but Lewica is their parliamentary ‘liaison’ so to speak.
Some others have just been trying to score political points – such as the bafflingly popular Szymon Holownia and his 'Polska2050 movement’, who has sort of supported the movement, while also saying he is personally against abortion…
In recent years, movements in Ireland and Latin America have successfully extended abortion rights. How much have you been inspired by these movements?
DB: As Dziewuchy Berlin we are collaborating with 'Berlin-Ireland Pro Choice Solidarity', who campaign against abortion bans and 'Ni Una Menos Berlin' - a feminist group of Latin American activists. They have fought for their rights and were successful. We learn from them and exchange our experiences with them, but also offer our support in their activities. In a way, there is a network of non-German activists based in Berlin, who fight for the rights of their people.
ZD: We have always been very inspired with the movements in Latin America. They have always been uncompromising, and I love them for it. And they thought us that solidarity around reproductive rights, very practical and unconditional solidarity, means more than the persistence antiabortion laws.
AK: I would say it was a mutual inspiration. After Black Protest and Women’s strike in Poland, similar actions took place in South America. Both South American countries and Ireland as well as Poland are countries with a large influence and presence of the catholic church. We were all inspiring each other especially with energy, slogans, methods of protests and visual aspects. There are many similarities (church as the “enemy”, similar women’s power, but also differences - local politics and structures.
What is the next step in the campaign and how can people outside Poland help?
ZD: It is, obviously, very important to make the issue public, engage in political lobbying, take the solidarity with people in Poland to the streets. But as an abortion activist I see a great need for practical activism – for groups and people helping those in Poland to gain access to procedures. Every year around 1000 people had legal abortions in Poland, mostly those based on embryopathological grounds. Now they will need to go abroad to have procedures. It is a great task for us, for abortion support groups, to be able to accommodate them. I am sure that we will meet this with the help of new volunteers getting in touch in the last weeks, and many donations, which we receive from people, both in Poland and in Germany. This is, I would argue, a very important aspect of the help that could offered by people outside of Poland – abortions cost a lot of money and only when we have enough money, we can offer support to all in need.
Another great development is the establishment of new abortion support groups in other European countries. Already in September this year, a collective Ciocia Wienia was formed in Vienna, Austria, where abortion on demand is also accessible up to 14 weeks. Some of the rules pertaining to abortion are less strict in Austria - there is, for instance, no need to undergo an obligatory consultation 3 days before the procedure. Vienna will be an easier destination for people from Southern Poland, and – if one group is overwhelmed with the amount of work – we can help each other. Another support group, Ciocia Czesia, was established in the Czech republic. This mobilization of activists living abroad or being from abroad around reproductive rights of people in Poland is very moving and empowering. We take seriously the phrase, which permeated the protests in Poland, “you will never walk alone”.
DB: The war is not over, the protests are not over, the pandemic is not over either. We are currently looking closely at the situation in Poland and keep in touch with other feminist groups. At this point the situation is quite dynamic. On top of that, a new legislative project has been presented in Sejm - a part of the Polish parliament - Stop LGBT might limit queer rights even further. 200,000 people signed the motion, the Church has shown great support for the bill. We need to keep our finger on the pulse and act accordingly.
Our collective is preparing to organize the Fourth Bloody Week - we will not stop fighting, we might adjust our actions to the current global situation, but we will not stop, we will not be silenced, we will not allow anyone to trample our rights.
AK: We are starting the fourth Bloody Week, this time less street protests, as corona is taking its toll, people are slowly loosing power on the streets.
More infos soon.
How can you help?
make online solidarity campaigns,
write about the situation in Poland in your countries, use your local media
support Ciocia Basia and similar organisations
support your local Polish activists
remember that shit happens in other countries too, we need a more transnational campaign.
Interview partners: Dziewuchy Berlin (DB) - Gals4Gals Berlin: Polish queer-feminist collective, Zuzanna Dziuban (ZD): activist with Ciocia Basia, Anna Krenz (AK): Polish artist, architect and activist living in Berlin.
On Wednesday, 2nd December, the LINKE Berlin Internationals are organising a public meeting: The Conspiracy Against Choice: Why abortion rights are under attack in Poland, Brazil and the USA. A limited number of places are available to see the meeting “live” in Aequa in Wedding, and the meeting will be livestreamed.