Since the 22nd of October, hundreds of thousands of Poles have been protesting in response to a decision by the country’s highest court to outlaw abortions in instances where a foetus is diagnosed with a severe and irreversible birth defect, deciding this is unconstitutional. In recent years such procedures made up about 96% of legal abortions in Poland, where abortion on demand has not been available for decades. The public are furious about this draconian change to the law, and also the timing and manner in which it was done: not via Parliament, but through a government-captured court during a pandemic, when gatherings are prohibited.
I left Poland 19 years ago, but I cannot put into words how mad this makes me. More than any other issue, even fracking. Imagine not being able to decide about your body or your life. Having a child, caring for a child is a job for life! It is a monumental task that impacts everything. Now imagine that the child you’re (or your partner) is carrying is severely and irreversibly disabled and that it might not even survive birth. But you have to carry it and you have to give birth to it. You don’t have a choice because someone decided you shouldn’t. That is torture. Nothing less.
Much has already been said about why so many people took to the streets: the physical and mental pain of women forced to give birth to terminally ill or disabled children, as if the decision to abort was not hard enough; the hardships endured by parents caring for — with little support — the children that survive; disabled babies abandoned by parents who were not able to care for them… How must these children feel, forever robbed of parental love? Why does the anti-abortion ‘empathy’ for the foetus not translate into empathy for a living child? This legal change will also increase social inequality because poor women and families are not able to afford abortion abroad or manage the burden of caring for unplanned children, especially those disabled. It will cause death to women seeking back-alley abortions. We’ve seen this before.
This is why women — and their families — are furious, pouring out onto the streets. But they don’t just want a reversal of this latest change — they now also demand the right to abortion on request, which was lost, ironically, after the fall of Communism. I fully support this. Nobody other than the pregnant woman can decide if she is ready to become a mother and love her child. Nobody else should be deciding about her body or her life. Modern medicine offers safe solutions — why should a coalition of government and church people — mostly men — have the power to take that away? This is the part I find most infuriating. It is toxic patriarchy at its worst. Its purpose is to control women’s bodies and lives, in the name of ideology.
What has been less discussed is that Poland, like in 1989 in the fight against communist rule, today is the front line in a battle against international networks challenging universal human rights. Deep-pocketed American Christian ultraconservatives are assisting Polish Catholic fundamentalists — through culture wars and legal cases — in eroding tolerance, women’s, and LGBT+ people’s rights. Poland is one of only three European signatories (along with Hungary and Belarus) of a declaration rebuking the international right to abortion under the pretence of promoting women’s health. It joins a coalition of such great human rights champions as Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. And of course its initiator — if you haven’t been following this might be a bit of a surprise — the USA, where a challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision seems only a matter of time…
Universal reproductive rights — a systemic solution
Reproductive rights, universal access to contraception and abortion, as well as education of girls and women — so often interrupted by pregnancy and motherhood — are important strategies for sustaining the biodiversity of our planet. Because meeting the needs of a growing human population comes at the expense of the natural environment, species that are dying off at an alarming rate, and a warming climate. As we encroach further and further onto other species’ territory, inevitably more viruses will use homo-sapiens as hosts. If we continue on this path, especially running much of the world’s economy on unbridled capitalism, we will see collapsing ecosystems, mass migrations of people, conflicts over natural resources, and more pandemics.
The “pro-life” label used by anti-abortion groups could not be more cynical and ironic. Abortion bans put the life of the unborn foetus above that of the mother and her family, her dignity, her well being, and above all other living species. Without any concern whatsoever for the quality of life of the unwanted children forced into this deteriorating world. “Pro-life” should not be the label of anti-abortion circles. The word life should not be exploited to justify an ideology that deliberately inflicts huge suffering only fully alive women (that once were also unborn foetuses), and that contributes to the demise of our planet.
Universal access to reproductive rights is a systemic solution that helps to alleviate many problems, including gender, economic, and social inequality. Let’s not miss the opportunity to start talking about reproductive rights as a systemic solution. We must finally acknowledge that we are all part of a complex and finite natural system, on which we are entirely dependent. Like a foetus inside its mother’s body, we are not our world’s masters nor independent of it. Life is all around us. It doesn’t need to be human to be celebrated. We need to quit this supremacist thinking if we want to save ourselves.
We must seek holistic solutions by creating alliances. Reproductive rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights, social and economic justice, biodiversity and climate protection, freedom of expression and democracy — these are not separate issues. They concern all of us and require solidarity. We must wake up and realise that the fight for the right to abortion is not just a battle for women’s rights or human rights — it is a fight for a decent world for us all.