Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet: Poland Elucidates the Power of a Movement

Many of us, myself included, unduly overlook the power of grassroots movements. On the Basis of Sex, naturally one of my favorite films, showcases a poignant exchange between Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones). The script reads:

Dorothy Kenyon: You want to know how I blew it, is that it? What I’d do differently? Why? You think you can change the country?

[referring to the Ruth’s daughter, Jane]

Dorothy Kenyon: You should look to her generation. They’re taking to the streets, demanding change, like we did when we fought for the vote. Our mistake was thinking we’d won. We started asking, “please”, as if civil rights were sweets to be handed out by judges.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change. As a lawyer, you must believe that.

Dorothy Kenyon: Well, sorry, Professor Ginsburg. Maybe someday, but the country isn’t ready. Change minds first, then change the law.

What I find particularly interesting about this discourse is that both Ginsburg and Kenyon raise equally vital facets of the theoretical equation reflecting the tenants necessary to engender lasting social justice reform. That is, on a high level, societies must be largely enthusiastic for a given societal transition, but legislation must also safeguard the necessary rights and protections that such a shift will necessitate. This equation is also reversible, and change can indeed be forcefully engineered first with the amendment of a law followed by the transition of popular opinion, albeit these cases are rare. It’s important to note that while lasting change is most efficiently brought to fruition with equal cooperation of these two fundamental pillars, laws will continue to change without popular support, given the sheer reality that the decisions of a few (often heteronormative, white, men) will not always align with the vast majority of their constituents. It is for this reason that we oftentimes perceive such leaders as the quintessential element behind societal shifts that directly impact our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however, turning to this decisive equation outlining the forces necessary to bring about lasting change, it is clear that without the cooperation of the people, such laws will ultimately tremor in the face of the societal discontent. It is therefore not solely the optimist in me who argues that grassroots movements, the people, will always have the power to advance society as they please; history illustrates the same.

The pendulum of abortion rights has continued to sway side-to-side in most democratic nations for nearly a century, and Poland’s legal architecture surrounding abortion has echoed this euphemistically-coined political football pass. In 1932, decades preceding the United State’s Sexual Revolution, abortion in Poland was deemed legal on medical and criminal grounds. In 1956, abortions in Poland were legalized on ‘social’ grounds, implying hardly any restrictions to the procedure. In 1993, mere years following the collapse of the communist system in Poland, the Anti-Abortion Law was introduced, criminalizing all abortions carried out on ‘social’ grounds. Restrictions surrounding ‘social’ abortions wavered for several years, and were finally solidified in 1997. In 2016, the Law and Justice party attempted to pass legislation banning abortion in the case of fetal abnormality, but failed after robust protests ensued. Subsequently, the Law and Justice party turned to the Constitutional Court, packed with party loyalists, and pushed for the same restrictions on constitutional grounds, which led to this past October’s (2020) harrowing decision.

On Thursday, October 22nd 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal found that abortion in the case of severe fetal defects is inconsistent with Article 38 of the Polish Constitution. As a result, the Court moved to pass the the previously proposed legislation. A jarring element of this particular step to curtail a woman’s right to abortion was that the vast majority of the dominantly Roman Catholic Polish society did not question the existing approach to abortion and opposed legislative restrictions, as they still do, which explains the unprecedented outrage from groups beyond the typical opponents of the Law and Justice party that followed suit. The scale of the resulting protests took the government by surprise, leading to a delay in passing the legislation, which was not affirmed until Wednesday, January 27th, 2021. The Court ultimately ruled that terminations should be illegal even in cases where a fetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect. This type of abortion accounted for the vast majority (1,074 / 1,100 or 98% in 2019) of abortions performed legally in the country, thereby rendering services legal in only two remaining cases: 1) rape or incest, or 2) danger to a woman’s life.

I felt my heart sink on the Wednesday morning of January 27th as I read the headlines illustrating that this piece of legislation had ultimately passed. I was undeceived, knowing full well that the bill was clouded with a façade of intention to protect life, albeit common knowledge reflecting that regardless of the law, women will continue to terminate a pregnancy when resolved to do so, and will often be forced to undergo the procedure unsafely, astronomically boosting the likelihood of mortality of both the mother and the fetus. Donald Tusk, an opposition Polish lawmaker and former president of the European Council, said of the Law and Justice Party, “For them it is not about protecting life. Under their rule more and more Poles are dying, and less are being born.”

At the same time, I was apprehensive of what such a ruling meant for Democracy as a whole. The leader of the Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has been explicit in his view alleging that “the Catholic church is fundamentally interwoven with the Polish nation, and Polishness itself. And that has meant embracing its values,” which is an undemocratic notion in and of itself, defying one’s freedom of worship – of belief and nonbelief – as the Church infiltrates laws that impact all Polish citizens. Not to mention, the Church’s claim to be the defender of Polish democracy has been undermined by its embrace of the governing Law and Justice party, which has dismantled liberal institutions and promoted xenophobic and authoritarian policies. Despite these downtrodden sentiments, I found hope in one crucially powerful theme ringing throughout the headlines: the movement. Images of protestors holding signs with boldly etched slogans reading:  “I think, I feel, I decide!” and “Freedom of choice instead of terror!” permeated the press. In Warsaw, women and men alike marched to the headquarters of the governing Law and Justice Party to songs including “I Will Survive.”

I have no doubt that these movements in Poland are history in the making. As New York Times reporter Amanda Taub writes, “What is underway in Poland is a forceful renegotiation of the foundations of government power, and the back-room deals, almost exclusively among men, that built them. Women’s demands for reproductive freedom and their calls for greater equality threaten to upend a power structure that has held since the fall of Communism… Such disruptions have been seen globally in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has toppled many powerful men, but none have gone to the heart of politics as directly as in Poland.”

It’s crucial to note that while these abhorrent events seem to be contained to Poland, they truly pose transnational ramifications. Just as the election of Donald Trump served as the catalyst behind women’s marches worldwide, and George Floyd’s murder impelled movements for equality and social justice reform on a global scale, the latest events in Poland ought to provoke the same transnational reaction. After all, local issues have global implications; an attack on one democratic system represents an attack on Democracy as a whole, the repression of one woman bespeaks the repression of all women, and the refusal to provide basic human rights denotes an attack on humankind. As Terry Reintke, a Green lawmaker from Germany who is in the European Parliament, said on Twitter, “Many of us cannot be in the streets with you to march in defense of our fundamental rights… But know this: In every village, in every city in Europe there are women following your struggle. Never forget you are standing on the shoulders of brave and courageous women who have fought this fight for many years.” Alongside European solidarity, this battle merits global solidarity, as we recognize that their fight is our fight.

At the very onset of this piece, I asserted the importance of noting that lasting change is only ever cultivated by the symbiotic relationship between popular opinion and the governing law. I also maintained that we are often deluded to believe that the decisions of a few hold the power to completely overhaul and overrun public opinion, rendering us alongside our freedoms vulnerable to individuals whose priorities revolve around appeasing leaders and advancing tainted agendas at the expense of the interest of the people and the greater good. Nonetheless, I vowed that societal movements will always prevail, as long as the people continue to fight for the cultural and structural changes that they envisage. This proclamation is substantiated by history; lasting change was only ever managed when ordinary people adopted a critical stance, and even if decades or centuries passed, the laws eventually shifted, because the people who embodied the movements never surrendered. Having corroborated the notion that movements will always prevail, and that we are stronger together, I believe the path forward is clear: we must continue. Many of us know that the energy garnered from a deep, long-harbored rage, is invincible and insurmountable; a flame that can never be doused. Societal achievements have only ever been brought about when one person was audacious enough to believe that a social reality that once seemed unalterable could in fact prove to be quite malleable, and most importantly, was willing to fight for something better. When the cause itself evokes universal sentiments of struggle, perseverance, courage and a collective vision for a different future, you have a moment. And as we’ve determined, the fortitude of these movements will always prevail in the end.

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