Women across Poland have spent the past several weeks protesting a restrictive anti-abortion law. The country has come to a standstill, as women refused to work in offices and households. As a result of the continuing protests, the state is even considering striking down the abortion law. Across the ocean, the US had announced the appointment of the new extremely conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barret, skewing the supreme court to a conservative majority. Consequently, the prospects of abortion restriction have increased. This is in line with a building trend in recent years. The fight for abortion is more important now than ever.
A History of Abortion Rights
Abortion has been in many places around the world, and in many still is, illegal. During periods where it has been illegal, women have been forced to resort to desperate measures to terminate a pregnancy. Often these measures would be dangerous, and in many cases ended up being lethal. Throughout the 20th century, many western countries began to legalise abortion. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee remarked that safe abortion and preserving the life of the mother are fundamental human rights. According to the UNHRC, to provide safe abortions is “necessary to guarantee the right to life, health privacy and non-discrimination for women and girls”. This statement on the right to life mentions the idea that states must provide safe and legal abortions when pregnancy causes undue harm and pain to women, and goes on to state that states must also not place measures that would push women to unsafe abortions. It further stipulates that conditions that may also push women to unsafe abortions are doctors and medical providers who refuse to provide abortions. The OHCHR states that, by denying women access to abortions, it may make them more vulnerable to cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment. Denying women the right to make choices about their own bodily autonomy depicts them as simply uteruses. Dignity and autonomy are rights that are said to be intrinsic human rights, but by denying that autonomy to only women, it constitutes discrimination directed towards women. Furthermore, by being forced to continue pregnancies or to seek unsafe abortions, it exposes them to unsafe conditions or keeps them in a potentially dangerous situation – this violates the right to protection that all human beings are also entitled to. By denying a woman this choice, the implication stands that women make these decisions without considering themselves and those around her, suggesting that the decision needs to be made for them, because they are not capable of making it themselves. This has been a longstanding narrative.
The Situation in Poland
Poland already had one of the strictest regulations surrounding abortions in Europe. In mid-October Poland’s constitutional tribunal banned abortion in instances where the fetus is unlikely to survive, which means that abortion is banned in almost all instances, except when there is a risk to the mother’s life or in the case of rape. Statistically, these instances only make up 2% of terminations in Poland. This makes abortion laws in Poland extremely restrictive by European standards. Already many women went to Germany or the Czech Republic to obtain abortions. The law now makes Poland the only country in the EU that has removed rights to abortions, and this has garnered criticism from across the EU. Several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have joined in campaigning for the EU to change Poland’s laws. This bill was pushed through by the country’s conservative ruling party, who won by the slimmest of margins – the incredibly conservative party is also supported by the national Catholic Church. In a swift response, women across the country took to the streets. There were hundreds of protests around the country – the biggest since protests against communism in the 1980s. Many of those who attended the protests see this recent development as the latest attack on their basic human rights. The protests have moved beyond the streets as well, with many women disrupting Sunday mass services. Poland is a deeply religious country and many of the young protesters have felt like the church has begun to interfere in their political rights. In the past, the EU has attempted to regulate these kinds of attacks on personal freedom, which are not limited to abortion but also to LGBTQ rights, freedom of the press, and judicial independence, but this has been with limited success. The Polish Prime Minister has considered making amendments after these ongoing protests. This move toward more conservative abortion attitudes is not restricted to Poland, but has been bolstered by countries like the US, that in October signed an anti-abortion declaration – which Poland also signed. The protests seem unlikely to subside anytime soon but reversing the law is being considered.
Abortion Rights in the United States
The US anti-abortion declaration is only the latest in the list of more conservative measures that the US administration has taken. The declaration was signed mostly by countries that rank the lowest on indexes of women’s security, with the US being the only top 20 country (according to the Women Peace and Security Index) to sign it. However, this should by no means come as a surprise if one has been observing the increasing restrictions on abortion that have become commonplace in various areas of the United States. The past four years under the Trump administration have shifted the country towards a more conservative route. In 2017, Trump decided to reinstate the global gag rule. This means that any foreign organizations that receive US state funding cannot provide abortion services or educate on abortion – this applies even if they don’t use the US funds for this purpose. The application of this measure has affected not only sexual health organizations, but every NGO that receives funding from the US, even if this doesn’t relate to what the US is giving funding for. The fact that this gag rule extends to even education on abortion is incredibly dangerous, since it doesn’t allow organizations that educate women about reproductive help to guide women away from dangerous or life-threatening abortions. Reinstating a global gag rule has put the lives of numerous women and girls at risk. The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as a supreme court judge also skews the US supreme court conservatively. Barrett has historically been in favor of restrictive abortion laws. This appointment in itself may even put the landmark ruling, Roe vs Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States, at risk. Barrett has also been a member of an anti-abortion group that has been a part of misleading crisis pregnancy centers – misleading women who are aiming to seek an abortion, and instead are encouraged to continue the pregnancy.
What can you do?
The changes we have explored can mean that a woman’s right to choose is under threat, and many women will not have access to adequate reproductive healthcare or bodily autonomy. However, there are some things you can do to help. Firstly, across the world reproductive centres need funding. Despite the fact that the global gag rule may be reversed when Biden assumes office, funding for these services is not secure if it is dependent on the fluctuating government of the US. Look at the reproductive informational services in your region and see how you can help with their funding. Secondly, volunteer at the clinics. There are several positions and roles you could take at clinics to help with their operations. Many clinics require clinic escorts to help women get into the clinic since outside many there have been campaigners and in recent years an increase in death threats and bullying. Thirdly, education is incredibly important. Educating yourself and others about abortion rights allows women understand their rights and understand how best to access essential services like abortion. Finally, it is important to work to elect and vote for pro-choice politicians. Policy has a massive impact on abortion regulation. Having governments that understand and promote women’s autonomy enables safer, easier access to abortion.
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