Feminism in an illiberal Europe: The case of Poland

By Maria sotiropoulou

In most recent years, multiple scholars, politicians, and journalists have described right-wing populism in Europe as the threat of “illiberalism”. In addition, if the media has been communicating on the rise of the extreme right as such, as it has been analyzed by scholars and academics, it is because the inherently illiberal right-wing populism defines a situation where “a strong leader exercises the will of the people, and it has a monolithic, predetermined conception of the will of the people that leaves no room for pluralism (including rights for minorities) or deliberation”.

This specific kind of populism, fuelled with right-wing ideologies, presents nationalist characteristics. Indeed, most political leaders from the right-wing populist parties claim to defend their nation against possible external threats and use the argument of the protection of national identity as a weapon against minorities’ rights (for instance, migrants). However, illiberalism does not solely weaken the European Union’s position on migration, but in certain cases, it also affects the rights of minorities like women and the LGBTQ community.  

The year 2020 has definitely posed crucial difficulties for the lives of individuals globally, affecting all possible aspects of livelihood. However, if you’re a young woman in Poland, trying to claim your right to a legal abortion, chances are that the past year has treated you a bit tougher. Shortly after a court decision banned nearly all abortions, protests for maintaining abortion rights started in Poland on October 22 of 2020. The media who ensured the news’ coverage counted those protests as among one of the biggest riots seen in the country since the fall of Communism in 1989. In fact, Poland witnessed an immense amount of protesters blocking roadways, disrupting religious services, and organizing nation-wide strikes. As a result, after two weeks of protests, the authoritarian Polish government finally signaled its openness to dialogue with protesters and took the decision of delaying the implementation of the ban. This delay was considered an immense achievement, proving the power masses can hold against governments. Still, it did not mean that the Polish authorities moved backwards and in January of 2021, the government published the law enforcing the court’s ruling that states that abortions may only be permitted in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger and bars the termination of pregnancies with fetal defects.

Moreover, since the time the ruling extreme-right political party Law and Justice (PiS) arrived to power, the authorities have constantly promoted their anti-abortion rhetoric concerning their political agenda on social issues. Therefore, at the beginning of the first lockdown in 2020, they attempted to pass a bill that would ban abortions due to fetal defects, and a few months later the October ruling by the Constitutional Court finally found unconstitutional the 1993 law that was allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities. As a consequence, as published by the BBC, 98% of abortions were carried out on those terms in 2019, which means that the ruling managed to effectively ban the vast majority of pregnancy terminations. Because of this, Polish women are now forced to travel abroad if they wish to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, in neighborhood countries such as the Czech Republic.

Abortion has been proven to be one of the most decisive conversation on social issues since the election of the Law and Justice party in 2015. During the last protest outbreak against the abortion ban in case of fetal defects, human rights and equality groups such as the “Women’s Strike” led the opposition. Among the protesters, a 17-year-old high-school student Zuzia told CNN: “It’s very important to be here because women’s rights are being trampled, I’m showing support for the movement.” Another 23-year-old protester, called Julia, also said: “We are here because the new abortion law’s verdict came into force and women became live incubators. The matter is simple to me: I want to have my rights and choice and I think everybody thinks similarly here and we have to support one another.”

Theoretically speaking, all opinions should be respected and heard no matter how much an individual might agree or disagree with them. But to which extent an elected judiciary and executive power can undermine women’s abilities to choose for their own body? In an era where mass protests should theoretically be criticized due to health concerns, protesters have to face a double threat: the threat of catching COVID-19 and the threat of loosing acquired rights all at once. In conclusion, authoritarianism in Poland is not posing a threat solely for European democratic values and the rule of law. It is also threatening the well-being of Polish women, who, due to the abortion ban, are witnessing their rights being reversed.

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