Women led protests against a government-backed plan to ban abortion. They are now center stage in Poland’s most important dispute since the end of communism

Basia and her boyfriend Maciek aren’t usually interested in political protests. But this one is different because it’s about abortion, so it concerns them directly. Two years ago, they traveled to Slovakia to abort a fetus that had serious malformations. Although a termination would have been legal in Poland, doctors refused to help them, claiming that it was against their faith.

So Basia and Maciek joined more than 100,000 others on 3 October to object to proposals that would ban abortion and criminalize those who travel abroad for the procedure. They were taking part in the bravest civil revolt in Poland’s recent history.

The demonstrators, organized on social media around the hashtag #CzarnyProtest (or “blackprotest”), were opposing a citizens’ petition from an anti-abortion lobby, represented by several NGOs linked to the Catholic Church and backed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). They had submitted their proposal to parliament, and it had made it through several stages of the lawmaking process.

The anti-abortion activists want to remove all three exceptions to the existing ban on terminations – rape, malformations of the fetus and danger to the life and health of the mother. They also want criminal punishment for both the women who undergo abortion and the doctors who help them.

By backing this project, PiS was fulfilling its part of a bargain with the Catholic Church, which had lobbied among their faithful during last year’s election. The Church’s support undoubtedly helped PiS to victory.

The party’s support for such a transparent attempt to violate women’s rights is symptomatic of its political strategy – it wants to divide and rule. Although it’s 27 years since communism fell, and 12 years since Poland joined the EU, PiS is still able to exploit the lingering alienation of the rural and uneducated working class. They are the most deprived, dispossessed and disenchanted sections of society.

Rejecting reason and pragmatism, PiS has turned voters against educated liberals, whom they have categorized as “fag lefties” and “traitors.” Through the party’s lens, the women who protested against the abortion bill are libertines who take pleasure in killing defenseless babies.

Although PiS was regarded by many as an un-official sponsor of the bill, the party’s 154 MPs eventually voted against the proposal. Can we infer that the anger of Polish women scared the conservatives? Certainly. But another aspect of the protests was even more frightening for these politicians, who have spent the past year dividing their own society.

They were terrified to see the solidarity that connected these women of all backgrounds and political inclinations. Especially those who were once reliable PiS voters.

Paths of greatest resistance

There is now anger on all sides of this debate. The lobbyists who submitted the anti-abortion proposals to parliament feel betrayed by the PiS U-turn. They accuse the party of complicity with the protesters and ignorance of the “new standards of the protection of human rights.” However, just like the Catholic Church, they have no other party to collaborate with, so any schism is unlikely.

As for the participants of the Czarny Protest – they cherish their victory, but their mantra is that “this battle is won, but the war is not over.” Their minds are focused on rumors that a ban on -contraception is coming, and that the government is planning an overhaul of sex education in schools. And there is always the specter of PiS returning to the abortion controversy with a slightly altered proposal.

The protesters are now coalescing around the slogan “the government will go no further.” They will be protesting against Church interference in politics, and politicians interfering in education.

But PiS is unlikely to change its strategy. It has traveled down this divisive path for much wider reasons than the superficial utility of spreading fear and deepening animosities. The party has inspired hope in those who were hardest hit by the neoliberal free market reforms after 1989, and didn’t catch up with the cultural pluralism brought about by the EU’s open borders.

PiS has promised to be the politicians who speak up for the forgotten half of society. The party has promised to reestablish the old deal between the government and the people and fight back against liberal “oppressors.” But in reality, their voters have been played for fools. And this abortion fiasco has laid bare that truth.