Protesters targeted Catholic churches across Poland on Sunday in the fourth straight day of upheaval against a near-total ban on abortion in the EU country.
Demonstrators chanted ‘we’ve had enough!’ and ‘barbarians’ inside a church in the western city of Poznan, according to a video clip posted on social media, in scenes that were repeated across the deeply Catholic country.
The protesters were reacting to Thursday’s ruling by Poland’s constitutional court that an existing law allowing the abortion of damaged fetuses was ‘incompatible’ with the constitution.
The country’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled in favour of a ban on abortions in cases of fetal defects, tightening Poland’s restrictive abortion laws even further. The decision means that abortions will only be permitted in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s health is at risk.
The verdict is in line with the position of Poland’s powerful Roman Catholic episcopate and the governing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Protesters, brandishing placards bearing expletives and others saying ‘I wish I could abort my government’, clashed with police and supporters of the ban outside a landmark church in central Warsaw.
Local media also ran pictures of graffiti on church walls in various cities and towns reading ‘Women’s hell’ – the main slogan of the protests.
Thousands of people – most of them women – also rallied in the cities of Gdansk, Krakow, Lodz, and Rzeszow, and in dozens of traditionally more conservative towns.
They echoed mass protests held across Poland since Thursday in defiance of strict limits on public gathering under anti-coronavirus measures.
In the city of Poznan, dozens of women interrupted a service and held banners in front of the altar while chanting to the congregation ‘We are sick of this’, according to media reports and social media.
Despite the ban on gatherings of more than five people, approximately 4,000 demonstrators gathered in the southern city of Katowice.
Some shouted ‘this is war’, and ‘human law, not ecclesiastical law’, according to media reports.
Opponents of the ruling argue it puts women’s lives at risk by forcing them to carry unviable pregnancies but supporters insist it will prevent the abortion of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
The country of 38 million people sees fewer than 2,000 legal abortions a year in Poland – which even before the ruling enforced some of the strictest termination restrictions in Europe – and the vast majority of those are carried out due to damaged fetuses.
But women’s groups estimate that up to 200,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.
Women’s Strike, the organiser of the protests, said there would be more rallies in the coming week – urging people to blockade cities on Monday, and calling on women do perform a nationwide strike on Wednesday.
Last week’s abortion verdict – which is final and cannot be repealed – drew condemnation from several human rights groups in Europe and the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation, with Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic calling it ‘a sad day for #WomensRights’.
Donald Tusk, a Pole who currently leads the European People’s Party after presiding the European Council, called the timing of the abortion issue ‘political wickedness’.
‘Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical,’ he tweeted.
The constitutional court’s decision also drew condemnation from rights groups from across the world.
‘[The] decision represents a total ban on abortion in Poland as 98 percent of legal terminations in Poland are related to fetal malformations,’ Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, said after the court’s ruling.
‘It’s a disgrace from the Polish state towards half of the population, women. We’ll never forget it.’
Kacpura said the situation for women with modest means was particularly concerning.
‘They will just be left with various dangerous methods like abortions performed by non-qualified people with methods I don’t even want to discuss,’ she said.
‘We’ve simply been imposed Ceausescu’s era,’ she added, referring to Romania’s late dictator who severely restricted abortions to try and boost fertility rates.
Meanwhile, the Polish presidency and Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, the head of the Polish Episcopal Conference, welcomed the verdict.
The constitutional court has been reformed by the PiS government, and has since been accused of counting many judges loyal to the party in its ranks.