I wrote the title and paused. Where do I even begin?
Poland, unlike Britain, has a written Constitution which serves as a supreme book of law for the country. Polish Constitution has a long and distinguished tradition, and as every proud Pole is keen to tell you, Poland was the first country in Europe and second in the world, after the US, to have come up with the written Constitution, in 1791 no less. We should probably gloss over the fact that that first Constitution only lasted 14 months, but anyway, the tradition was set, and suffice to say that the Constitution is a very big deal in Poland. It’s a sacred document of the land. Like the Bible, which, ironically, is also a sacred document to many Poles, and that is where a lot of Poland’s current problems stem from.
Last Thursday, a court called Constitutional Tribunal (CT), which rules on constitutionality of all Polish laws, issued a decision banning abortion based on severe malformation of the foetus.
Over the last few decades, abortion has arguably been the single most inflammatory, emotive, divisive, controversial issue in Polish political and social life. Do not get me wrong, there have been plenty other inflammatory, emotive, divisive and controversial topics around recently, such as LGBT rights, specifically gay marriages and adoptions (both remain firmly illegal), the intake of refugees (Poland refuses to take any), sexual education at schools (you can guess), free access to contraception, and a plethora of other similar issues.
Before last Thursday, abortion had already been outlawed in Poland in most cases anyway, but the recent decision takes it up to another level by introducing a near-blanket ban. Abortion is only going to be allowed where there is a risk to a woman’s life, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or (puzzling turn of phrase) incestual violence. The last two scenarios need to be verified by a prosecutor.
Historically, as introduced by Abortion Act in 1956 by the then Communist government, abortion in Poland was legally available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. At the time, this was a pretty liberal law, compared to other European countries. As any Call the Midwife fan worth their salt knows, abortion in Britain was only legalised by Abortion Act of 1967.
The recital of the Polish 1956 abortion law included circumstances which allowed for the legal termination of pregnancy. One of them quoted ‘difficult life conditions of the pregnant woman’, which opened itself up to a broad range of interpretations and effectively amounted to ‘abortion on request’.
Despite fairly regular challenges by the Catholic Church and its derivative organisations, the status quo existed until the end of Communist rule in Poland.
All of that changed in 1993, when the new Act of Parliament removed the ‘difficult life conditions’ provision from the previous law, leaving only the danger to woman’s life, foetal malformation and rape or incest as grounds for legal abortion. As far as game changers go, that one was pretty major. Curiously, the 1993 Act had been referred to as an ‘abortion compromise’ in Polish political discourse, which should have set off some worrying alarm bells among the pro-choice section of Polish society. If that was a compromise, what else could the opposite side have in mind? As of last Thursday, we’ve got the answer.
The amendment to the law means that women will now be forced to carry pregnancies to term even in the case of most severe, irreversible foetal abnormalities. Such babies will often only live for the matter of minutes, or hours, and that could be seen as small mercies. Others will live lives stripped off any meaningful existence or dignity for years. There is no need to explain what depths of misery and avoidable suffering that will entail for the severely disabled babies, their mothers and wider families.
The timing of the latest decision cannot go unnoticed, and is truly despicable in itself. Poland is as much in the grip of the Covid pandemic as the rest of us, the stats have been steadily rising over the last few weeks. Polish government must have known that a CT decision of such magnitude, with such breathtaking social consequences, would not be accepted without protest, that the people will take to the streets ignoring current Covid restrictions thus endangering lives.
Nationwide response came literally within hours of the CT decision. Thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of Polish towns and cities, armed with unprecedented anger and makeshift slogans. They’ve been out there for the last week and they have no plans to return home any time soon.
One word stands out on their cardboard banners, the word which, incidentally, I shrink from using in everyday parlance. The word is Wypierdalać and it means Get the fuck out. This word has been traditionally associated with representatives of lower social classes, who would use it in situations of heightened emotions or extreme inebriation. Since last week, I have seen this word on the lips of individuals I thought incapable of pronouncing it. The word is directed against the current government, the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party and also against the dignitaries of the Catholic Church, which is seen as largely responsible for the current developments. Which leads us to the next stage.
Three days after the CT decision, several groups of protesters all over Poland, entered their local Catholic Churches, and interrupted the Sunday Mass. Religious feelings run as deep among some parts of Polish society as their love of the Constitution, so this was seen by many church-goers as a terrifying escalation of events, the violation of the sanctity of the churches.
Two days later, on Tuesday this week, and I promise this is the final episode in my current reporting, the leader of the PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, decided to address his party faithful on national TV, mainly on the matter of attacks on churches, but also on the subject of the vulgarity of expression on the part of the protesters. He appealed to all Polish citizens, and specifically to all the PiS members to ‘protect Polish churches at all cost’. He described the attacks on churches as part of the plan to destroy Poland. He referred to the current events as ‘war’ for the preservation of Polish national identity and Polish patriotism. He signed off by saying, ‘let’s defend Poland’.
It did not take long for his audiences to draw chilling parallels with another sombre leader’s speech, watched by millions, as general Jaruzelski declared Martial Law from TV screens on a December morning in 1981.
Since I like to do things thoroughly, I set out to find somebody who supports the latest CT decision and to try to understand the reasons why they defend it. None of my friends does, so I resorted to a well-known research method of Facebook stalking. I found one person, who is not only in favour of the decision, but she is prepared to, quite literally, go to war over it. Yes, it’s a woman. She welcomed the CT decision with ‘joyous heart’, and she is now ‘more proud than ever’ to be Polish. You get the gist.
She attracts like-minded individuals to comment on her posts. Remember Katie Hopkins comparing migrants to ‘cockroaches’? That’s exactly how this person and her circle refer to their political opponents. The all-embracing highly contemptuous term which they use to describe anybody with even a hint of liberal views, is lewak. Lewak doesn’t translate easily, mainly because whatever word I choose, it will likely fail to convey the utter disgust and derision the Polish term implies. Leftie is too soft, it sounds almost like a term of endearment by comparison. Libtard comes close, except it is not used very often in English, whereas the label lewak is freely given out in Poland to anybody who expresses even slightly progressive views, about anything.
This morning, she put a temporary frame on her profile picture, which reads ‘National Guard’. She has taken her leader’s words to heart, and has declared herself ready to ‘protect the churches, protect Poland’ against the supporters of eugenic abortion.
So there it is. Eugenic abortion. This is a rather cleverly, carefully chosen term, I must admit. Eugenics is a fully discredited concept, and it gives the supporters of the current CT decision a high moral ground they so crave.
All of this is far from over. I will let you know what happens next.