Many offices and classrooms around Poland sat empty on Monday as women took to the streets to protest a proposal for a total ban on abortion.
Thousands of women wearing black and waving black flags, joined by a number of men, waged a nationwide strike against legislation that would make all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape or when the woman's life is at risk. The new law, which came from an anti-abortion citizens' initiative that had gathered 450,000 signatures and the support of the Catholic church, would punish women seeking abortions and the doctors performing them with a prison term of up to five years.
The proposal for more restrictive abortion laws may reflect a growing conservatism among the younger generation of Poles, for whom abortion "has always been illegal [since 1993] and perceived as a crime," as Michał Łuczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, told The Christian Science Monitor in April. But despite the nation's Catholic influences, opinion surveys show very little support for stricter abortion laws.
Poland already boasts one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws. Since 1993, abortions have been illegal with the exception of cases where the woman's life is in danger, the fetus is irreparably damaged, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The 1,812 abortions officially performed in Poland in 2014 provide a stark contrast to the communist era, when up to half a million abortions were performed each year. As the Christian Science Monitor's Monika Rębała and Sara Miller Llana reported in April:
When communism did fall – with the Roman Catholic Church playing a leading role in Poland’s transition to democracy – a political fight for more restrictive bans emerged immediately. A group of senators presented a bill in December 1989 pushing for abortion to be legal only when a woman’s life was in danger. Thirty-three percent of Poles approved at the time, while 59 percent were against the new restrictions. It wasn’t until 1993 that a new bill, the one still standing, was voted in, denying women the opportunity for abortion for social or economic reasons.
Some attribute the drop in acceptance [of abortion] to the success of the pro-life camp, borrowing tactics from those in the US that rely on graphic imagery. Mirosława Grabowska, a sociologist from CBOS Institute, attributed her organization's polling results to legal awareness, church influence, and technology, “which paradoxically can foster pro-life attitudes,” she told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. “Women almost from the beginning of pregnancy can see the baby on the ultrasound pictures, and these pictures are suggestive.”
The country's changing views on abortion may also be attributed to younger Poles' tendency to be more conservative than their parents.
"Among young people, conservatism is a form of resistance against the old system," Dr. Łuczewski said. "Since 1989, the establishment in Poland was more or less liberal, so the revolt against it can't be liberal, too."
But the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has not given the legislation its full backing, despite its allegiance to the Catholic Church. Political analysts predicted in September that PiS would end up backing some of the proposed restrictions but not all, permitting abortion in the case of rape or danger to the mother's life but not health problems of the fetus, as Reuters reported.
Organizers of Monday's demonstration, which attracted an estimated 5,000 participants, said in rallying speeches that they also wanted as few abortions as possible in Poland, but believed the reduction should be achieved through better sex education in schools and easier access to birth control.
Though official statistics show hundreds of abortions performed legally in Poland each year, activists say tens of thousands more are performed on the black market or in neighboring countries.
This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.