On April 15, the Polish Parliament enacted the “Stop Abortion” bill. Although the Sejm decided to redirect the bill for further review in parliamentary committees, the government was criticized for taking advantage of the COVID-19’s restrictive measures to pass the law. NGO’s and women’s rights came together through the social networks to report that women’s rights have suffered a blow during the confinement period, as spousal abuse was reported to have risen sharply. They specifically denounce that the Polish government took advantage of these confinement measures by trying to pass a controversial law decreasing again women’s access to abortion.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, democratic backsliding has started to be experienced in many countries. Various leaders used the pandemic as a tool for preserving and increasing their electoral support. They also used the precautions against the pandemic to legitimize their controversial decisions. Women have been one of the topics that were impacted negatively by the COVID-19 because of their vulnerable position at houses with abusive partners, an increase in their workloads, and their access to abortion. In this case, we should pay attention to Poland, since there was a bill to increase the restriction on the current abortion laws in Poland.
The abortion law in Poland is already one of the strictest in the European Union. It was not always so. Abortion was legalized in 1956. Hence, it soon became widely available with subsidies from the government. After the fall of Communism, however, Poland passed a new abortion law in 1993 which made abortion illegal with some exceptions. Currently, the procedure is only allowed when the mother’s health is at risk, there is a fetal abnormality, and pregnancy results from rape or incest. Still, it is stated that even if the woman has one of the exceptions, finding a doctor willing to assist women in abortion is extremely hard. Although technically women can order pills for medical abortions from other countries, and abortion drugs are part of the WTO’s on the essential medicines list; Polish women stated that the packages are sometimes held up by customs.
The bill is “popular initiatives,” requesting 100,000 signatures to take it to the parliament. It was introduced in March 2018 and October 2019. However, the bill was temporized before the pandemic. They are prepared and endorsed by right-wing groups such as The Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture. On April 15, the Polish Parliament voted for the bill “Stop Abortion”, which was going to dispossess Polish women from the almost entire abortion possibility. However, on April 16, the Sejm redirected the bill for further consideration. In addition to the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party support, President Andrzej Duda had declared his support for the restrictive bill by saying that “I am a strong opponent of eugenic abortion and I believe that killing children with disabilities is frankly murder. If the plan finds itself on my desk, I will in all certainty sign it.”
Despite the legal obligation, the timing of the bill is convenient for the ideology of the Polish government. Because, as a result of social distancing rules, mass protests cannot take place. Instead of dealing with the negative influence of the COVID-19 on the Polish economy or improving the unpreparedness to take the COVID-19 under control; the restrictive abortion and the other controversial initiates were at the government agenda. Consequently, the opposition and women’s rights activists criticized the timing as an opportunistic move to bypass democratic scrutiny. It appears that the Polish government is trying to reassure its conservative voters before the Presidential election on 10 May 2020.
The travel restrictions linked to confinement measures strongly restricted women’s access to health workers, pharmacies, and suffer from the lack of government support. Furthermore, the timing of the bill, owing to the pandemic, posed a serious challenge to women needing abortion and to human rights campaigners and women right activists that want to protest the bill. Since public gatherings were banned, Black Monday demonstrations against anti-abortion could not be repeated. That is why, to protest the bill, the protesters used alternative ways to raise their voices. They used their vehicles to block the roads and shouted slogans against a citizen’s bill. As Poland protested the anti-abortion laws with a mass gathering in the past, all protesters were again dressing in black and some of them were carrying umbrellas since the umbrella was a symbol of this movement. There were also cyclists wearing face masks, holding the posters saying, “Hell for women”, “I have a right to choose”, “Abortion is OK”, “My body is my business” attached to their bicycles. Protesters also received support from people staying at home by posting posters on their windows and balconies. Besides, online platforms were used to share pictures of women in black and carrying pills for abortion by using hashtags #ProtestAtHome, #blackprotests”, #womenshell, #CzarnyProstest (meaning #BlackProtest), #StrajkKobiet (meaning #WomenStrike), and #PiekłoKobiet (meaning #HellForWomen). Hence, in these difficult times, social media has become the main and the most significant tool of protestors to raise their voice and inform others.
However, it should be noted that the actual debate in parliament regarding this abortion bill is the result of the citizens’ initiative. According to the Polish constitution, the Polish parliament is obligated to review a citizens’ initiative or petition when it is signed by more than 100,000 Polish citizens. This petition received over 830,000 signatures from Polish citizens. Because the discussion of the anti-abortion law was introduced before the pandemic has begun, criticism could be depicted as the absence of delaying these discussions in the time of the global pandemic. As most Western countries have delayed any voting due to these extraordinary circumstances, Poland could have modified its policies.
So how can and should we interpret all these regarding Polish democracy?
Despite the timing, anti-abortion discussions are not unconstitutional due to the collected signatures. As Varol portrays this type of attitude as “stealth authoritarianism”; the fundamental aim is undemocratic while the process follows the democratic system. Because there is neither violent pressure to the opposition nor the application of the repressive practices according to the law; the authoritarian tendency in Poland can be considered as “stealth authoritarianism”. Thus, the pandemic has become one of the significant and strategic tools of authoritarian growth. Since the Polish government could improve its power over the opposition, the authoritarian tendency is gradually increasing in the country.
Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, access to abortion was limited and difficult in Poland. Therefore, the recent developments caused by the COVID-19 required the Polish government to reconsider their policies to help women more. However, on the contrary, the PiS government instrumentalized the pandemic as a tool of their political party agenda. Even though online protests took place and postponed the discussions in the parliament; the current abortion law and lack of governmental responses are still not sufficient to answer the need of women. Since the restriction on abortion has irreversible consequences, the Polish government should implement policies that are paying attention to how serious this healthcare is.
Although coping with the pandemic requires lockdown globally; human rights, especially women’s rights, and their autonomy should not and cannot be locked down by the governments. Women’s rights and their bodily integrities are under a major threat during the current pandemic. We should understand the severity and significance of the situation. Otherwise, unwanted children, the increased risk of mother’s lives, the rise in a number of illegal abortion cases, and negatives outcomes will be the case. Sejm of the Republic of Poland, is the lower house of the Polish bicameral parliament.  The Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection, and Conditions of Permissibility of Abortion. n.d. https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Polish%20abortion%20act–English%20translation.pdf (accessed 04 19, 2020).  SIFFERLIN, ALEXANDRA. “It’s Almost Impossible To Get An Abortion In Poland.” time.com. n.d. https://time.com/poland-abortion-laws-protest/ (accessed 04 20, 2020).  Walker, Shaun. “Concerns Over Polish Government Tightening Abortion Laws.” The Guardian. 04 14, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/14/concerns-over-polish-government-tightening-abortion-laws-during-covid-19-crisis (accessed 04 20, 2020).  Hall, Bogumila. “Gendering Resistance to Right-Wing Populism: Black Protest and a New Wave of Feminist Activism in Poland?” American Behavioral Scientist, 2019: 1497–1515.  Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” IOWA LAW REVIEW, 2015: 1673-1742.
It was very interesting to read about this, especially because it is something not many of us are thinking of right now. However, I think it’s very important to shed light on issues like this even during a global pandemic. Democratic erosion caused by COVID-19 is not only leading to a lack of supplies and resources, but to a lack of support from the government as well. It is vital that we continue studying the effects of the virus throughout the world among different groups, not just the ones whose voices are always heard.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I am glad that I was able to raise awareness regarding women’s rights under extraordinary times. I agree with you that we should continue following the democratic erosion during the pandemic not only regarding popular topics like the economy but also on women’s rights.
This article was a great take on how the Polish government is making it harder for women to get abortions by taking advantage of the predicament we are in. My only concern is that I do not believe this is a prime example of stealth authoritarianism in Poland. Yes, the government did it at a time in which, because of the health and well-being of the majority, protests were impossible to have. But, it did not undermine other institutions of government or using it to their advantage to make. It merely did not take into account the voice of the people. If Poland is a representative democracy, the people should blame the representatives who they elected, for letting a bill like this pass through. The common mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism are completed through judicial review, libel lawsuits, electoral laws, non-political crimes, surveillance laws and institutions, and bolstering domestic and global legitimacy. None of which, I believe, Poland falls into. Correct me if I am wrong.
First of all, thank you very much, Franklin, for your comment. I am glad that you liked the article.
Regarding the stealth authoritarianism part;
“Stealth authoritarianism serves as a way to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option. Stealth authoritarian practices use the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state.” (Varol, 2015, pp.1678)
In Poland, the opposition can prevent the government from taking the next step by, for instance, stopping it through legal means, such as defeating a bill in parliament. Nevertheless, legal countermoves initiated by the opposition can slow down the process; but in reality, they are not very effective to pose a threat to the government.
The Polish ruling party, PiS, gradually changed the parliamentary procedure for introducing new bills: parliamentary rules say that bills proposed by the government must be subject to public hearings. So, the government switched to presenting its proposals as private bills of its deputies. Moreover, laws are passing in accordance with constitutional provisions, it is not correct to accuse the government for violating the constitution. This is what we mean by ‘stealth’: “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends” (Varol, 2015).
The PiS is a conservative right-wing political party. Besides, the government with support from the Church agrees with the restriction on the abortion law ideologically. Owing to the upcoming presidential elections, the ruling party would like to benefit from highlighting their opposite stance to the abortion in order to increase their support from conservative citizens. Also, the COVID-19 provided an opportunity for them to not face with my mass protest against the Stop Abortion bill. That is why, even though the bill was taken to the parliament according to the law, the utilization of the Stop Abortion bill can be labeled as ‘stealth authoritarianism’ in Poland.
Lastly, the term ‘stealth’ can be used as ‘the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends’ (Varol 2015).
I found this article very interesting and well written. You really shine the light on human rights in regards to women. I agree that even though the world is in a pandemic with COVID-19, people should not forget about very important issues like abortions. By limiting healthcare choice for women this can cause illegal abortions, abuse and other serious outcomes that are not good for the physical or mental health of the unwanted children and mothers. COVID-19 is no an excuse to put women on the back burner. I agree that it is extremely wrong what the Polish government is doing and is not at all acting like a democracy.
Dear Malia, thank you very much for your kind comments. I am glad that you liked the article and agreed that we should continue supporting the women’s rights during the pandemic. Hopefully, we will encounter better news regarding women’s rights in the following days!