WARSAW (NYTIMES) – Tens of thousands of women took to the streets in dozens of Polish cities and towns for a nationwide strike on Wednesday (Oct 28) to protest a top court’s decision to ban nearly all abortions, even as the nation’s leading politician urged his conservative supporters to “defend Poland”.
The call by Mr Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the deputy prime minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, to fight back against those he cast as “criminals” seeking to “destroy the Polish nation”, threatened to escalate an already tense moment in the deeply divided nation.
“This is the only way we can win this war,” Mr Kaczynski said, using martial language that critics said served as a call to arms.
His remarks, made in a speech to Parliament on Wednesday and in a video posted on Tuesday night to his supporters on Facebook, came as protests stretched into a sixth straight day and drew in the Roman Catholic Church, with demonstrators interrupting Mass, vandalising church facades and staging sit-ins at cathedrals as they held coat hangars aloft to symbolise dangerous abortions.
One group of women donned long red dresses and white bonnets meant to evoke the subjugated women in The Handmaid’s Tale novel and television series and marched into a cathedral and down the aisle between worshippers.
The women protesting the abortion ruling have been joined by a host of other groups opposed to what they see as the authoritarian drift of the ruling party.
The ban on abortion – made by a court ruling that is not subject to appeal – was for many the culmination of a multi-year effort by the ruling party to undermine the rule of law and, step by step, take control of the judicial system.
Twice before, in 2016 and 2018, the ruling party moved in Parliament to impose a ban on abortion.
But it backed off both times after nationwide demonstrations underscored the political cost. This time, the ban came through the Constitutional Tribunal, which is firmly controlled by party loyalists.
The widespread outpouring of anger over the past week reflected the pent-up frustration felt by many after watching the steady erosion of institutions meant to safeguard democracy, said Dr Marcin Matczak, a constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Warsaw.
The court’s decision on abortion, he said, “would not be possible without the previous assault on the rule of law”.
The grievance with the church is also, in many ways, the culmination of watching the critical role many of its leaders have played in the political victories of the Law and Justice party.
On Wednesday, people – overwhelmingly women – poured out from their offices to take part in the work stoppage.
They filled the streets in cities like Gdansk, Lodz, Warsaw and Wroclaw, but also in smaller towns like Siemiatycze in eastern Poland, which used to be a stronghold of the Law and Justice party.
In Warsaw, a large crowd – most of them wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus – marched to Parliament, blocking traffic, and chanting “Come with us!” to the people watching from windows and balconies along the route.
Many of the protesters carried signs bearing anti-government slogans and umbrellas, which became the symbol of protests in 2016 against efforts to ban abortion.
“My uterus is not your playground,” one sign read. “I wish I could abort my government,” said another.
The country’s Constitutional Tribunal issued its ruling on Thursday, tightening what were already among the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
The court’s decision halted pregnancy terminations for fetal abnormalities, virtually the only type of abortion currently performed in the country.
Abortions of pregnancies resulting from rape and those threatening the life of women are still formally legal.
Even before Mr Kaczynski’s call to action on Tuesday to his Facebook supporters – in which he called on people to defend Poland, patriotism and “in particular” Polish churches – right-wing extremists had seized on the protests and formed vigilante groups outside churches, leading to clashes and small brawls with protesters.
Ms Edit Zgut, a fellow at the Germain Marshall Institute, said Mr Kaczynski was using the “ultimate populist manifesto: If you are criticising us, you are against the nation”.
Mr Kaczynski’s call to oppose the demonstrations came as the nation faces the largest outbreak of the coronavirus since the pandemic began in the spring.
Doctors have warned that hospital beds are running low, ventilators are in short supply and the healthcare system could soon buckle under the pressure.
“When others were getting ready for a war with the virus, you were getting ready for a war with the nation,” Mr Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council and a leading opposition figure, said in comments directed against the government on Twitter.
“Back out before a tragedy occurs.”
The anger on the streets has been raw, with women saying they feel they have been made pawns in the government’s culture wars.
The church holds a special place in Polish society, in part because of the integral role that many priests, as well as the Polish pope, John Paul II, played in the 1980s in the Solidarity movement and the fight for freedom from communist rule.
For many Poles, the role of the church in politics today feels like a betrayal.
“Now it’s not really just about abortion, it’s a protest about the loss of humanity,” said Ms Emma Herdzik, an actress who has attended protests in Warsaw.
As protests have persisted, the threat of violence has started to loom ever larger, with right-wing extremists rushing to join the fray. And Mr Kaczynski’s exhortations to his supporters may encourage them further.
Mr Robert Bakiewicz, the leader of an ultranationalist group, had already said his supporters would form a “Catholic self-defence” force, what he called a “national guard”, to confront “neo-Bolshevik revolutionaries”.
“The sword of justice is hanging over them and, if necessary, we will crush them to dust and destroy this revolution,” he told reporters on Monday.
“If the Polish nation isn’t able to give us this security, we will take action.”
His supporters clashed with demonstrators outside St Alexander’s Church in the centre of Warsaw this week, and an image of one of them throwing a protester from the steps of the church has been shared widely around the country.
Outside the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, one of Poland’s holiest Catholic shrines, police deployed tear gas to separate protesters and nationalists, according to local radio reports.
In Poznan, where protesters staged a sit-in at a cathedral, one protester was badly beaten by nationalists who confronted the group, according to the local news website TenPoznan.
At a demonstration in Warsaw on Monday, a car hit two women participating in the protests.
Some observers said it looked as if the car was driven into the crowd deliberately. One of the women was treated for injuries in the hospital and later released, according to the police.
On Wednesday, Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s largest daily newspaper, reported that the driver was a 44-year old government security officer from the Internal Security Agency.
He was detained by the police, according to the authorities.
The combustible mix of public unrest and the pandemic added to the uncertainty of the moment and led to a remarkable series of bitter exchanges in Parliament.
Opposition lawmakers carried protest signs as they confronted Law and Justice members, and tried to approach Mr Kaczynski on Tuesday.
Mr Kaczynski, who was protected by Parliament’s security unit, denounced the opposition as “Russian agents”, while female Law and Justice lawmakers shielded him with their bodies.
Mr Cezary Tomczyk, the parliamentary leader of the main opposition party, Civic Platform, accused Mr Kaczynski of issuing a “call to lynching” and condemned what he said was the creation of “militias” loyal to the ruling party.
After they reached Parliament on Wednesday, demonstrators tried blocking an exit, scuffling with the police guarding the building.
“Let’s do a lockdown for our parliamentarians,” said Ms Marta Lempart, one of the Women’s Strike leaders, through a megaphone.
“We will do everything not to let them get out.”
“Until the Middle Ages finish in Poland,” added a voice from the crowd.