Angry women block traffic across Poland over abortion ban

WARSAW, Poland – Women’s rights activists and many thousands of supporters held a fifth day of protests across Poland on Monday, defying pandemic restrictions to express their anger at a Supreme Court decision toughening the already tough abortion law of the predominantly Catholic nation.

In Warsaw, mostly young demonstrators – women and men – blocked rush-hour traffic at several large roundabouts with drums, horns and firecrackers for hours. Some of them took off their shirts and stood topless on cars. Many held banners with profanity calling on the right-wing government to step down.

A group of far-right supporters staged a counter-protest outside a church and police in riot gear kept the two groups apart, using pepper spray at one point. Some of the people protesting the court’s verdict were arrested, while others sat on the street to stop the police car from taking the detainees away.

A protesting woman was taken to hospital with minor injuries after she and another woman were hit by a car. The other woman was not injured.

Organizers said people have joined their protests in more than 150 cities in Poland, including Poznan, Lodz and Katowice. It was one of the largest anti-government protests in recent years.

In Kraków, protesters chanted “This is war!” – a slogan that protesters have repeated many times in recent days. They also shouted obscenities at the country’s traditionally respected Roman Catholic bishops.

Archbishop of Kraków Marek Jedraszewski said the protests were marked by “aggressions hitherto unknown in Poland when sanctity of churches and holy places is violated”.

Protesters defied a nationwide ban on gatherings aimed at halting a surge in new coronavirus infections.

They have taken to the streets every day since the Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that it is unconstitutional to terminate a pregnancy because of congenital malformations in the foetus. The ruling bans virtually all abortions in the country.

The verdict is not yet final because it has not been officially published, which is a prerequisite for a law to be valid.

The head of a medical group, Dr. Andrzej Matyja, in a speech on Radio Zet, criticized the timing of the verdict during the pandemic, saying it was an “irresponsible provocation of people to rallies” where social distancing could not be maintained.

Poland’s conservative leaders have also been criticized by professors at Kraków’s prestigious Jagiellonian University, who said the delivery of such a verdict during a pandemic was “extreme evidence of a lack of responsibility for people’s lives”.

In a letter to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda, who was infected with the coronavirus, the professors appealed to “urgently find a way out of the situation”.

Many gynecologists have also criticized the verdict. dr Maciej Jedrzejko said the ban will lead to an increase in dangerous, illegal abortions, arguing that sex education and access to contraceptives are the best ways to limit abortions.

The ruling by the government-controlled court overturned a provision of the 1993 law forged by the country’s political authorities and church leaders after the fall of communism. This law only allowed abortions in limited cases and became one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.

With the coming into force of the judgment, abortions are only permitted if a pregnancy endangers the health of the woman or is the result of rape or incest.

Among those supporting the ruling is MEP for the ruling Conservative party, Patryk Jaki, who is the father of a child with Down’s syndrome. He warned on Twitter that abortion can also eliminate healthy children “because you’re rarely 100 percent sure.”

Jaki also argued that abortion contributes to the country’s low birth rate and said it could pose a “threat to the Polish state”.

Figures from the Ministry of Health show that 1,110 legal abortions were performed in Poland in 2019, mostly for fetal defects. The non-governmental Association for Women and Family Planning estimates that Polish women perform around 100,000 to 150,000 abortions annually, some illegally in Poland and others abroad.

Women’s Strike, the main organizers of last day’s protests, say forcing women to give birth to fetuses with severe defects would result in unnecessary physical and psychological suffering for the women.

Group leader Marta Lempart said there would be a nationwide strike on Wednesday and a protest march on Friday in Warsaw, home of the government, the Constitutional Court and the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party behind the court’s decision.

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