Poland’s Coat Hanger Rebellion Against a New Anti-Abortion Law

Poland’s Catholic Church and conservative government may have figured a draconian new “pro-life” law would have general acceptance. They were wrong.

Beata Zawrzel/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Catholic priests issued decrees during morning mass last Sunday calling for the country to institute a complete ban on abortions, Poland erupted in protests. The initiative was not unexpected, but the surge of opposition caught many by surprise as men and women took to the streets waving wire coat hangers, symbols of the deadly “back room” abortions that take place when all legal means to terminate a pregnancy are exhausted.

The purpose of the priests’ coordinated speeches was to launch a petition and gather churchgoers’ signatures that could then be used to begin a legislative campaign in the country’s parliament, the Sejm. A “pro-life” organization called Fundacja Pro quickly gathered the required 1,000 signatures. But when the group made its intentions known during the course of the previous week, many Poles started organizing opposition on Facebook.

In just two days, they drew together over 65,000 concerned activists and laid the groundwork for Sunday’s protests, but stopping the momentum of the draconian legislation is going to be a long, tough fight.

Current law in Poland allows abortions only in three drastic situations: when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger; or when the fetus is severely damaged. This is already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Europe, forcing many women to seek out underground abortions or travel outside of Poland to countries like Slovakia. But in the eyes of Poland’s Catholic Church, this policy is too lackadaisical.

The draft of the new legislation was written by an organization called Ordo Iuris (Rule of Law), whose stated aim is to “promote a legal culture based on respect for human dignity and rights.” The draft was promptly endorsed by the Polish Episcopal Conference, which acts as the central organ of the Catholic Church in Poland. The conference’s widely disseminated notice on the new law explained that it supports it because the 5th Commandment specifically states “Thou shalt not kill,” and thus life must be protected from beginning—from the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg—to its natural end.

The wording of the law itself is simple but the implications are sweeping: “Every human being has the inherent right to life from the moment of conception,” reads its article I. “The life and health of the child from conception remain under protection of the law."

On April 4, the Polish television network TVN reported that the law would lead to prison terms of up to three years for causing the death of a child once conceived. The same would apply to anyone who assists with or encourages the termination.

Critics looking at the possible legal ramifications were appalled. Pawel Kalisz of the Polish website Natemat wrote that the wording of the law could include as accomplices the woman or girl’s doctor; the friend driving her to the clinic; the dad who wrote her the sick note for the day off from school; the friend who brought her medication from abroad. Everyone.

Others noted that, in theory at least, rape survivors and children will be forced to give birth; women who might die due to their pregnancy will have no way to terminate it legally; a miscarriage might be punished with a sentence, as fetal murder will enter the criminal code;

Also, the state will have the right to bypass a person’s constitutional rights in order to protect unborn children; since prenatal testing is connected to a very small risk of miscarriage, it will be banned and doctors performing it might face criminal charges; and the morning-after pill will be categorized as an early abortion tool and thus completely banned (as will IUDs).

As one protester pointed out as well, women who discovered early on that their fetus had zero chance of surviving the pregnancy would be forced to live with the misery of carrying the baby for months and months until the inevitable conclusion.

The punishment would escalate to up to eight years of jail time for abortions undertaken without the consent of the woman. Furthermore, prison sentences of up to 10 years would be on the table for abortions undertaken while the fetus has the capacity for life outside the womb.

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There are some loopholes, but they are narrow and unreliable. The draft law would not make it a crime for a doctor to end the life of a conceived child during the course of a procedure essential to saving the life of the mother. Furthermore, in exceptional cases the court would be able to reduce the jail sentence of a mother who had deliberately caused the death of a conceived child, or waive it altogether.

Although Polish values generally are Catholic and conservative, many Poles marched out of mass on Sunday in disgust when priests read the decree. A video of a woman openly admonishing her pastor went viral across the country. In it, the priest interrupts the woman’s tirade to ask if she has finished with her “political statement.” The irony of this remark was not lost on social media users, with one woman commenting, “Well, yes, because in church, political statements can only be made from the priest’s pulpit.”

The country’s right-wing media, meanwhile, called these protests a provocation against the state.

Although, formally, nothing has yet been codified, the wheels of change have been put into motion says Polish journalist Michał Szułdrzyński. “Now that Fundacja Pro have done their initial signature gathering, they will take it to the Sejm, which will verify the 1,000 signatures and then give the group three months to collect another 100,000 signatures. If successful, this next step would force the Sejm into taking a serious look.”

That’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds.

In 2011, a civic initiative to ban abortion gathered nearly 500,000 signatures and was introduced into the Sejm. At that time however, the lower house was run by the more left-leaning Civic Platform, which rejected the idea. When it was put to a vote, the more liberal Civic Platform party held 208 seats while Law and Justice (known by its Polish acronym PiS) controlled 157. The result of the vote was 178 for and 206 against.

Now, however, the PiS controls 235 seats against the Civic Platform party’s 157, and has embarked on a systematic campaign to stifle and marginalize opposition. PiS could pass the bill on its own, and it’s also got a parliamentary ally, with the third biggest party Kukiz’15, run by musician turned right-wing populist Pawel Kukiz. The Kukiz party holds 40 seats in Sejm, and its leader has also been an outspoken opponent of abortion in the past. With these numbers, the bill will almost assuredly pass.

All of this poses a very real and terrifying prospect for women across the country who fear that the coat hangers they’ve been holding as symbols of resistance might soon become their only recourse against unwanted and unsafe births.

When asked why he believes this is happening again, Szułdrzyński says it’s quite simple. “In the opinion of the Catholic Church abortion is wrong in every circumstance and they feel that as a Catholic country, Poland should pass a law to reflect the church’s position.”

Earlier in the week, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo was asked on public radio what she thought about this issue, and she said that as a Catholic she supports the proposal. Her remarks sparked outrage and she has now backtracked a bit to say that she was merely giving her opinion as a private person and not making a statement as prime minister.

Her flip-flop sparked ridicule online, with many women questioning why the PM was so personally interested in the wombs of Polish women. Several went on Szydlo’s Facebook page. One, Malina Prześluga-Delimata, decided to notify her, sarcastically, that she wasn’t pregnant: “Madam Beato, I write to inform you that my cycle runs fine. I received my period on time (the cycle lasts 31 days).” She went on to thank the PM for being so interested in her and in her reproductive potential. “It is fantastic to know that for the moment I will be able to shift responsibility for my breeding to someone else. I will keep you up to date.”

The greatest display of anger, however, was on Poland’s streets, in what might be called the coat hanger rebellion.

Szułdrzyński believes that the ruling PiS party was caught off guard by the backlash. “This has driven great controversy because if you look at recent polls, although most people are against abortion, the overwhelming majority supports the three exceptions as they stand now,” he said.