Poland Abortion Ruling Sparks One of Country’s Largest Protests in Years

Poland Abortion Ruling Sparks One of Country’s Largest Protests in Years

WARSAW—Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Warsaw on Friday protesting a ruling by a top court earlier this month that made one of Europe’s strictest abortion laws even tighter.

Abortion has been largely banned in Poland since 1993 except in cases of rape, incest, when the mother’s life is at risk or in the case of fetal abnormalities.

Last week, Poland’s constitutional court, its top tribunal, tightened those laws when it struck down the exemption allowing women to terminate a pregnancy in the case of fetal abnormality. Abortion remains legal in the three other circumstances.

Since coming to power in 2015, the conservative Law and Justice party has pushed to make the abortion law even tighter.

In 2016, the party discussed legislation that would have banned the procedure in all cases, but dropped it after tens of thousands of women dressed in black marched through central Warsaw.

In opinion surveys, most Poles say abortion should be illegal except in rare circumstances. Yet most Poles also oppose the court’s decision to outlaw abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities, according to a recent poll.

The crowd carried signs and chanted in the mass protest Friday.



Photo:

maciek jazwiecki/Reuters

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said women should be able to terminate pregnancies “when the fetus is permanently and irreversibly damaged,” polling firm Kantar said this week. By contrast, 11% said abortion should be illegal in every circumstance, and 22% think it should be legal during the first trimester.

The head of Law and Justice, Jarosław Kaczyński, called on conservative supporters to rally in response to the demonstrators. Law and Justice has appointed a majority of the judges on the constitutional court, including its powerful head.

Since the ruling, Warsaw has seen nightly protests by abortion-rights demonstrators. In Friday’s protests, demonstrators that are part of a movement called the National Women’s Strike carried homemade signs and chanted, “I think, I feel, I decide” as they moved through the city center.

The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, who is less powerful than Mr. Kaczyński, has attempted to calm the tensions.

“I know that there are many honest women, mothers who are very concerned about this situation and this ruling and its possible consequences,” Mr. Duda said Thursday. “I think that some kind of legal solution should be prepared as soon as possible that will calm down the emotions of people who are approaching this situation honestly.”

Since the court’s ruling this month Warsaw has seen nightly demonstrations.



Photo:

Piotr Lapinski/Zuma Press

However, Mr. Duda didn’t say how he would respond to the ruling. The government has hailed the court’s decision.

“We have to show that we can fight and are not some group of docile women who will tolerate all this,” said Laura Starzomska, 21, an economics student who said she had attended smaller protests every night over the previous four days. Nearby, marchers chanted “Solidarity is our weapon!”

The demonstration—one of Poland’s largest in years—came against the backdrop of the coronavirus health crisis that is becoming one of Europe’s worst.

On Friday, Poland’s health ministry registered more than 21,000 cases of Covid-19, breaking the daily record for the fourth day in a row.

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Hospitals are crowded, soldiers are racing to turn a stadium into a field clinic—some troops have been asked to help perform coronavirus tests—and nuns have had to fill in for medics after one-twelfth of the entire health-care workforce fell sick over the past two weeks.

The country, which has the lowest ratio of health workers to population in the European Union, has closed restaurants and high schools and restricted shopping hours. On Friday, the government closed cemeteries through All Saints Day, a deeply-rooted national holiday when families visit the graves of their dead relatives.

The protests have occurred despite bans on large gatherings. With bars and universities closed, demonstrators have held smaller marches each day this week, with thousands of mostly young people taking to the streets.

Write to Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

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