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 recent events have shaken me to the core. Not just because I am Polish, a woman, and a mother, but also because I worry about what kind of world we will all have to live in over the coming decades.
Much has already been said about why so many people took to the streets: the torture of 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 not able to care for them… How must these helpless children feel, robbed of parental love? Why does the anti-abortion ‘empathy’ for the foetus not translate into empathy for a living child?
This recent change to the law will also increase social inequality as poor women and families won’t be able to afford abortion abroad, or manage the burden of caring for unplanned children, especially disabled. Anyone who has ever been a child’s primary carer will understand the monumental impact of this on one’s time, career prospects and even the ability to work.
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 demand. 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 future or how she wants to realise her potential as a human being.
What’s less discussed is that Poland, like in 1989 in the fight against the 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 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. Together with the likes of Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and its initiator - the US, where a challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision seems only a matter of time.
But here is what’s less discussed
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 which 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.
Taking this into account, the “pro-life” label used by anti-abortion groups could not be more cynical and lacking in empathy. 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. They don’t care about the quality of life of the unwanted children forced into this deteriorating world. “Pro-life” should not be the label of abortion supporters. They should not be allowed to exploit the word life to justify a harmful ideology which promotes suffering, oppression and contributes to the demise of our planet. If anything, “pro-life” should be the label of pro-choice circles that support human life, dignity and love, and all life on Earth.
“Pro-life” should not be the label of abortion supporters. They should not be allowed to exploit the word ‘life’ to justify a harmful ideology which promotes suffering, oppression and 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.
So let’s not miss the opportunity to open a dialogue on reproductive rights as a systemic solution. It is time to 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 its masters nor independent of it. We must seek holistic solutions by creating alliances between nations and organisations. 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 even broader human rights — it is a fight for a decent world for us all.