WARSAW, Poland — Throngs of people poured into downtown Warsaw on Friday to join what women’s rights activists vowed would be the largest street demonstration in more than a week of mass nationwide protests against a court ruling that further restricts abortion rights in Poland.
The demonstration in the capital violated pandemic restrictions which limit public gatherings to five people, with participants disregarding government appeals for people to stay home due to skyrocketing coronavirus infections. Poland has hit new records for confirmed cases almost daily this week, including the 21,600 confirmed cases reported Friday.
Rallies were also being held in some other Polish cities.
The national public prosecutor promised to file criminal charges against protest organizers for “causing an epidemiological threat,” a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Klementyna Suchanow, one of the key organizers with the Poland’s Women’s Strike initiative, said she and many others refused to be deterred by either the virus or the authorities because they believe they are fighting for a fundamental right.
“This is about the freedom and dignity of people,” Suchanow said. “The will of people to protest should be a lesson for anyone who wants to impose authoritarian ways.”
Security forces were out in large numbers Friday evening, including military gendarmes deployed by the government amid the recent street protests.
The past week of social upheaval followed an Oct. 22 ruling by Poland’s constitutional court, which held that abortion in cases of severe fetal deformities was unconstitutional.
Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive laws. Forged by political and Catholic Church leaders in 1993, it allowed abortion only in the cases of fetal defects, risk to the woman’s health and pregnancies resulting from crimes — incest or rape.
The law has been often described as a compromise between those seeking liberal abortion regulations and the church, which favors a total ban. However, neither side has ever been satisfied with the 1993 law, and women’s groups demanding greater reproductive rights say it struck no balance at all.
Last week’s constitutional court ruling leaves only the woman’s health or pregnancy resulting from crimes as legal reasons for abortion.
Earlier attempts by the country’s conservative ruling party to change the law to ban all abortions also prompted enormous street protests, including in 2016 and 2017.
This time, the Law and Justice party’s leadership appears to have calculated that it could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under its political control to do it during the pandemic. If that was the case, the plan has backfired for now, though it remains to be seen how long the protests will keep going or if they lose public support eventually.
The protests have included people disrupting church services and spray-painting slogans on churches last Sunday. Young protesters also chanted obscenities directed at the ruling party and the church. The actions offended many people in the largely Catholic nation, even some who disagree with the court ruling.
Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has since called on supporters to defend churches. And state broadcaster TVP, which is used as a party mouthpiece, has condemned the protesters, repeatedly calling them “left-wing fascists.” During a Thursday evening broadcast, TVP compared them to totalitarian regimes that oppressed the church.
Health Ministry figures show that 1,110 legal abortions were carried out in Poland in 2019, mostly because of fetal defects.
Polish women seeking abortions get them in Germany or other nearby nations, or illegally in Poland.
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