Solidarity across countries: Perspectives of Polish abortion rights protesters

Photo of protest
Małgorzata Broda/Courtesy

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More than 200 people met at San Francisco’s Rincon Park on Nov. 1 to show support for the protests in Poland against the government’s latest abortion restrictions. Right next to the Embarcadero waterfront, face-masked adults and children carried signs emblazoned with red bolts of lightning, the symbol of Poland’s Women’s Strike. On the signs were slogans, most in Polish and some in English, including “San Fran stands with the women of Poland” and “Abort the Patriarchy.”

“This is a peaceful show of support for our country,” said Magdalena Myszka, a Bay Area resident born and raised in Poland. Myszka organized this protest by posting an event on Facebook. The protesters chanted slogans used in the Polish protests, some of which translate to “I think, I feel, I decide” and “This is war.”

Mass protests in Poland began Oct. 22 after the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, passed a court decision that tightened the country’s already restrictive abortion laws. With demonstrations in more than 150 cities in Poland, they are the biggest protests in the country since the 1989 fall of communism. More than a month later, these protests are still going strong in the face of far-right counter-protesters and continued antagonism from the government. To many, the protests have expanded into a broader movement against the right-wing Law and Justice party.

I spoke with Myszka and four other Polish people who’ve spent time in Berkeley or the Bay Area about their perspectives on the movement. They each shared their personal involvement with the protests, from the demonstration in San Francisco to the central protest in Warsaw. They described what the movement means to them and their hopes for the future, and they even shared their thoughts on how people in the United States can show their support.

Everyone I spoke with made it clear that abortion rights and women’s rights are the primary motivations for these protests. At the same time, many saw them as deeply tied with a general condemnation of the Law and Justice party and of the rise of right-wing nationalism in Poland. Some also saw the conflict as a cultural one, a challenge to the established ideologies in the predominantly Catholic country.

 

“San Fran stands with the women of Poland”

On Oct. 22, Poland’s government ruled to ban pregnancy termination due to fetal defects, declaring it unconstitutional. This is a near total ban on abortion. The ruling party broke a compromise passed in 1993 by politicians and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, a law that left a few limited options for legal abortions. On the same day, more than 30 countries signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration, which declares the intent to “reaffirm that there is no international right to abortion.” Poland and the United States were among them.

On the day of the ruling, Myszka held an impromptu demonstration in an Oakland park. She and five other people, including two local Polish LGBTQ+ activists, arranged themselves on the ground in the shape of the lightning symbol.

She hardly expected the turnout at the Nov. 1 protest.

“I know five Polish. Five people who are from Poland here. So when we posted it, every day when I open my Facebook, it was like 20 people more, 20 people more,” Myszka said. “And then the day before, my meeting invite was showing 367 people interested.”

At the event, Myszka was impressed by the participants’ banners and artful signs. Most signs featured statements of solidarity with Polish women and the red bolt of lightning of the Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet), which is the main organizer of the protests in Poland. Multiple signs featured the slogan, “PiS off.” One girl wore 3D earrings with the lightning symbol. Signs in English focused on women’s rights, with slogans such as “Women’s rights are human rights” and “F— Patriarchy.” There were also pride flags and symbols in support of LGBTQ+ rights.

At the beginning of the event, the protesters conveyed their anger through chants. As the event went on, the tone of the event transformed into a happy one, a positive show of support.

Agnieszka Ilwicka, a California resident born and raised in Poland, attended the San Francisco protest. She was glad to see that there were people from various age groups and family situations at the protest, including families with children and au pairs. Most everyone at the protests was Polish or had connections to the Polish community.

 

A continuing fight

Ilwicka, born in 1986, grew up in a small town in the northeast of Poland. She told me about the strong, Catholic ethics of her town. She grew up believing that abortion is a sin and that it should be forbidden in all circumstances.

While studying abroad and attending university, her opinions changed. She realized that there were many options during pregnancy, including abortion, but that the freedom to choose was not a given. She has not been in Poland during the protests, but she is proud of her friends there who are participating.

“And if only I was in Poland, I would be on the street with them, because I agree with everything,” Ilwicka said. “Yes, we do have rights for legal abortion from day one. Yes, we do. All of us. Safe, secure, performed by professional doctors, not some random stranger.”

Explaining her pro-choice beliefs, she asserted that keeping the parent alive should be the priority.

“If it would come to the situation that they would sacrifice me or my fetus, then they would sacrifice me first. And that’s something that I cannot agree with, especially now when I’m a mother and I know how important it is to be present as a living person in child’s life,” Ilwicka said.

The Law and Justice party, which has been in power since Andrzej Duda won the 2015 presidential election, attempted and failed to pass a total ban on abortions in 2016. That attempt had also been met with mass protests.

Ilwicka emphasized that the current protests are a continuity of those 2016 protests and of everyday efforts such as protests on International Women’s Day. But this time, they demand more. Ilwicka said it would not be satisfying for anyone to return to the terms of the 1993 compromise; abortion must be fully legal in Poland.

“We really have to go for as much as we can,” she said. “Otherwise, we will be left with nothing.”

Ilwicka remarked that people at the San Francisco event had varying political views, but they stood together in anger against the recent abortion restrictions. “We have a united front, and that’s amazing,” she said.

Like Ilwicka, each person I talked to emphasized that they’ve seen people from across the political spectrum join the movement.

 

What are you fighting for?

I talked with Zuzanna Buszman and Kamila Midor, both currently in their home country of Poland, in a Zoom meeting together.

Buszman received her master’s degree in law at the UC Berkeley School of Law last spring, and she now works in Warsaw. Living next to Three Crosses Square, one of the main places where the protests take place, she hears every one of them. She also took part in the Warsaw protests several times, including one on Oct. 28. Buszman observed people from the political left, center and even right at the events.

Midor is a former UC Berkeley international student who now lives in her hometown, the small Polish town of Żywiec, where she attended two protests. She was surprised by the many hundreds of people who showed up at the protests in her relatively conservative town.

Buszman agreed that people who didn’t care about politics in their daily lives were showing up in spades. So why was there such an eruption of mass protests from so many people, including people who didn’t pay much attention to politics on a daily basis?

According to Buszman, this was a question of private rights. She emphasized that most people were extremely upset, simply as human beings, that the government would interfere so drastically in their private lives.

Buszman, like thousands of others, considered the dangers of protesting during the pandemic. Ultimately, the abortion laws were angering enough that she put on the safest mask she had and went to the Oct. 28 protest. She spoke of the fight for abortion rights as one that transcends political divisions: “Some left-wing parties wanted to use … the crowd that was immensely built up … to also show the more political manifesto behind us. And I don’t think it was really that much political.”

Midor held a different interpretation. Both Buszman and Midor agreed that the issue was important to them as people who are affected by the laws, but Midor added, “From my perspective, the protests are, well they are political.” She pointed out that there were countless posters and chants that condemned the Law and Justice party in the harshest terms possible. “It’s just saying ‘no’ to the ruling party and everything they have done.”

Ilwicka said the strong influence of the church on community ethics makes people prioritize dogma over life: “People think that religion and theory about life is more important than the life … and they are willing to forget the importance of living person.”

Emil Albrychiewicz, a current student at UC Berkeley and former president of the Polish Club of Berkeley, also sees this as a wider protest against the Law and Justice party.

He talked with me about some of the other alarming things the party has done that protests have addressed.

Albrychiewicz disapproved of how the government passed the abortion ruling during the COVID-19 pandemic, ostensibly knowing retaliation would be more difficult while there is a ban on large gatherings. Indeed, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has called for the end of protests while emphasizing the dangers of the coronavirus. Some immunologists, meanwhile, have pointed out that most protesters are masked and socially distanced, reducing risks.

It seems that many protesters disapprove of the government’s handling of the pandemic and see it as one more example of why they must go out in the streets and demand better.

Albrychiewicz is also alarmed by how the Law and Justice party took control of the judicial court in 2015. The government has also been generally resistant to the European Union, violating an EU court injunction by putting a judge on trial and vetoing the EU’s pandemic relief fund. Albrychiewicz described the party’s actions as ridiculous, even illegal. Others opposed to the party have accused it of authoritarianism.

This means that for many, the protests are also a fight for democracy.

Albrychiewicz and Midor pointed out that the rise of right-wing nationalism is a global phenomenon. There are also huge populist movements in countries such as the United Kingdom, Hungary, France and the United States. We all need to be paying attention.

The demands of the Women’s Strike prioritize getting looser abortion laws. But they encompass much more, and they critique the government as a whole.

Myszka read some of the demands to me: They include more funding for health care, financial support for people during the pandemic, free birth control and sexual education for all. She and Ilwicka both mentioned that the same government that is going to these lengths to protect fetuses doesn’t provide care for children with disabilities after they are born. This is something that must change, they said.

Myszka said LGBTQ+ rights are also a pressing issue, especially given that cities in Poland have established LGBT-free zones.

Do the protests address that transgender and nonbinary people are affected by abortion laws? The conversation largely concerns cisgender women, but Myszka said yes; she had heard discussions and read an article discussing how abortion laws affect noncisgender people. Above all, she said, they are fighting together against a government that seemingly supports neither women who could become pregnant nor anyone in the LGBTQ+ community.

“They fight for abortion for all,” Myszka said.

 

“Traditional, conservative, Christian, Catholic values”

Many see the protests as manifestations of cultural tensions, specifically in how the protests challenge the centrality of the Catholic Church in Poland. The Law and Justice party has made the church-government relationship closer than ever before. Many of the recent protests target churches, such as the ones in Warsaw outside St. Alexander’s Church at Three Crosses Square.

One of the demands of the Women’s Strike is to end religious education in schools. “The country should be for everybody and the religion is an option,” Myszka said.

Though some might say these other demands draw attention away from the issue of abortion rights, these discussions attempt to address the root of the problem. Ilwicka made it clear that the widespread Catholic ideology, like the one she grew up in, makes abortion out to be morally wrong. She said the strong influence of the church on community ethics makes people prioritize dogma over life: “People think that religion and theory about life is more important than the life … and they are willing to forget the importance of living person.”

And what’s happening on the other side of this conflict? During the first week of the protests, the leader of the Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, called for his supporters to “defend Polish churches,” some of which had been defaced, against protesters. Myszka and Midor described this as Kaczyński calling for a civil war.

This year’s right-wing Independence Day march on Nov. 11, an annual event, seemed like a nationalist counter-protest. The main organizer of the march expressed that the participants wanted to uphold “traditional, conservative, Christian, Catholic values.”

Midor herself witnessed counter-protesters when she attended her second protest in Żywiec on Oct. 28: “I noticed a group of maybe 30, 40 young men from the, I don’t know, far-right nationalists’ group or something, who are just standing there looking at us. And it really made me scared, because there weren’t a lot of police around.” After that incident, she decided to not go to more protests due to safety concerns. Experiences such as Midor’s reveal just how intense the energy is on both sides of the conflict.

 

Peaceful protests

Though the protests are largely peaceful, there have been incidents of force. Multiple people I talked to criticized brutality from the Polish police. When we spoke on Nov. 18, Ilwicka updated me on some recent events: “Police used gas against protesting women. Shame on them … because that means that they are following orders of the government.”

At the protests, police have used aggression against crowds and against members of the press. Multiple journalists have been hit with batons, and one was shot in the face from close range with a rubber bullet.

People are also concerned about the number of protesters, including minors, who have allegedly been detained. Midor expressed concern regarding an incident where the police visited a 14-year-old student at his home. Human rights lawyer Eliza Rutynowska said the police threatened the boy with criminal charges after he posted information about a protest on Facebook.

On the topic of police brutality, Buszman wants everyone to make sure they are checking their facts from multiple sources. She warns that there are many rumors and claims that may or may not be true: “Truth is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the police brutality, it is there. … I don’t feel they should be authorized to use the gas, for instance.” She said she’s seen protesters who have been violent or defaced buildings and received multiple warnings from the police. The interior minister said the police only used force because they were being attacked.

The head of the opposing party disagreed, claiming that the protests were peaceful.

Midor pointed out that the far-right protesters at the Independence Day march were violent. Some of the participants threw stones at police and into buildings with LGBTQ+ flags. “They were very brutal, and they vandalized a lot of buildings, and they attacked people, and that, you know, that gets ignored,” she said.

 

How can we help?

People have to stand together and financially support organizations that help individual lives, Ilwicka said. She also wants people to look out for their own community in ways beyond just abortion rights, such as aiding people who are homeless in Berkeley. As for organizations in the United States, she strongly supports Planned Parenthood.

To support the Polish community, she recommends donating to Abortion Without Borders and Abortion Support Network, which provide funding to people in Poland to go abroad for abortions. She also encouraged people to donate directly to the Women’s Strike. She is adamant that people can have a real impact: “Put your $10 to (an) orphan house in Poland. … Sponsor scholarship for someone.” She remarked that the U.S. dollar is powerful when sent to another country. “For example, $300 in Poland will make monthly living for one child.”

Buszman encouraged people who have the means to donate to nongovernmental organizations that care about sexual education and support women with children. Again, she encouraged people to verify facts when they read news about Poland, as it’s “really easy to do on a daily basis without even financial support.”

The way toward change through petitions is unclear, but Myszka said pressuring local government officials to declare support for the Polish protesters is a step in the right direction. She had also contacted a few local women’s rights organizations, but she didn’t hear back. People in Poland would appreciate it if such organizations showed their support, she said.

She also appreciates when people feature the Women’s Strike logo on their social media: “For me, it means that people, you know, the world, is seeing what’s happening.”

Ilwicka emphasized the importance of cultural exchange, referencing how her experience meeting people abroad introduced her to new ways of thinking.

Buszman said this is something she loves about Berkeley, that there’s a community that stays connected with other countries and cultures. “Just care. That’s my point. Don’t only look for what’s going on in America,” she added.

 

The very near future

Myszka is trying to stay optimistic about the future, but it’s difficult.

“I’m worried every day. And yesterday, somebody posted a really nice graphic. It’s like a person crying, and it says, ‘Is it from gas after the protest?’ And they say, ‘No, I’m just sad.’ Because we don’t know. You know, yesterday was the day 30 of protests,” she said. The leader of the Law and Justice party definitely doesn’t seem to be budging.

She expressed hope that after the election in the United States, President-elect Joe Biden might show his support for the protests in Poland. The Law and Justice party thinks it is the only one who is correct, she claimed, but outside support can challenge this. Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed his support for the Polish women protesting, which Myszka appreciated. “The only help can come from abroad, and it needs to be financial sanctions for Polish government,” from the EU or the United States, she said.

Albrychiewicz believes Poland needs a reelection. Many have claimed that the last presidential election, which occurred in person during the early months of the pandemic, was corrupt. Poland needs to get the Law and Justice party out of power and choose a new parliament and new president, Albrychiewicz said.

In general, he’s optimistic that the protests will push people to go out and vote against the ruling party: “I believe that this protest … it will be fruitful. And, it will, if not a sooner election, it will at least motivate, especially young people, to vote. Because I knew people who didn’t vote, and now they’re complaining.”

Ilwicka expressed hope for more changes to an oppressive national culture, which she described as heteronormative and “white-skin oriented.” She said the best outcome of the protests would be to make abortion fully legal in Poland, with no more compromises.

The protests continue in Poland. The future is uncertain. But those I interviewed are proud of their country and the people standing up to the government. They are determined to succeed in the fight for positive change, and we should all be paying attention.

Contact Miranda Jiang at [email protected].