Poland is home to some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. Abortion was largely illegal and only allowed in hospitals in instances of rape, incest, life endangerment or fetal anomaly. That was until October 22, 2020, when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal Court issued a ruling stating that a 1993 law allowing abortion for diagnosed fetal anomalies was no longer constitutional.
What happened next would become history. Tens of thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Warsaw to protest the total abortion ban. The nonviolent protests would continue in the country’s capital for weeks. It’s estimated another 400 protests involving close to half a million people erupted in cities throughout the country in the following days . These protests, which would go on to be known as ‘Strajk Kobiet’ or the ‘All-Poland Women’s Strike,’ are the largest since the Solidarity Movement of the 1980s, which led to the fall of communism in Poland.
After protests started, Law and Justice Party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski publicly cast those protesting the abortion ban as enemies of the state . The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has ruled Poland since 2015 and is similar to the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement in the United States. The PiS calls itself ‘pro-family’ and has moved to implement anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion laws in the name of that goal. The similarities between the groups is no coincidence; twenty-eight U.S. Christian right groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and American Center for Law and Justice have spent millions of dollars to advance policies that threaten LGBTQ and reproductive rights in Europe, including Poland .
Fetal anomalies made up 98 percent of the legal abortions provided in Poland. In late January 2021, the country moved forward with implementing the new restrictions . Despite this setback, the All-Poland Women’s Strike has continued to grow into a human rights movement.
The logical consequence of abortion bans is criminalization, and in 2022, Justyna Wydrzyńska, a co-founder of Poland’s Aborcyjny Dream Team, became the first person charged with violating the country’s strict abortion laws.  Justyna is accused of sending a woman experiencing domestic violence abortion pills through the mail in February 2020. While it is not illegal for someone to have an abortion in Poland, helping or assisting someone with a termination is illegal. If found guilty, Justyna is facing up to three years in prison. The case goes to trial on Friday, April 8, 2022, and members of the the Aborcyjny Dream Team started the hashtag #IamJustyna to build support and solidarity online.
In the United States, many are preparing for a post-Roe landscape following a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. There is a lot that we can learn from Polish abortion rights activists and their work gives us insight to how we can organize and mobilize people for abortion rights.
1. There’s Power in Sustained, Peaceful, Non-Violent Direct Action
Direct action is a powerful way to not only voice opposition, but to spread information and build broader support. The initial protests in Poland were immediate, and the movement quickly came to represent widespread anger about the country’s shift to authoritarian rule. While the protests in Poland were incited by the abortion ban, it has been sustained by renewed calls for reproductive and LGBTQ rights, a separation of church and state, health care access and more.
Protests were and have continued to be peaceful and nonviolent, despite the actions of abortion opponents and PiS supporters, who were responsible for a number of aggressions towards protestors, including launching flares at an apartment building that had a Strajk Kobiet flag .
The peaceful nature of protestors stood in stark contrast to the actions of Polish authorities and police, who publicly cast protestors as enemies of the state. This helped draw international attention, which led to the commendation of the abortion ban from the European Union’s Human Rights commission .
2. Strong Imagery and Symbolism are Key
Following the ruling, conservative lawmakers and PiS leaders demanded Polish churches be protected, which led to a military cordon in front of the Church of the Holy Cross on Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw. As anti-abortion activists set up camp outside the church, chanting and blasting the sounds of babies crying on speakers, abortion rights activists had another plan. Activists projected a red lightning bolt, what would become the symbol of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, onto the Palace of Science and Culture, a building from Poland’s communist era . The action represented anger about the lack of separation of church and state in Poland.
Clear and strong imagery can be instrumental in growing a unified and easily-identifiable movement. In the 1980s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, also known as ACT UP, reclaimed the pink triangle, which was used to designate gay people in Nazi concentration camps, to bring public attention to the AIDS crisis . In Hong Kong, umbrellas have been used in pro-democracy protests as a symbol of resistance since 2014.
While imagery of coat-hangers still remains popular in the global abortion rights movement, it no longer effectively represents those having abortions outside the medical system. Today, people self-managing their abortions can do so safely and effectively with abortion pills. Casting all abortions that happen outside of a medical setting as dangerous is not only stigmaizing but untrue. This is especially important in the Poland, where taking abortion pills before 22 weeks gestation isn’t criminalized. The All-Poland Women’s Strike’s red lightning bolt works because it is easily recognizable, genderless, and can be easily replicated by anyone.
In 2021, when Poland moved forward with implementation, red flares and pride flags were waved in the streets of Warsaw along with signs that read, “free choice, not terror.” Activists also wore green bandanas, a nod to Argentinian activists who successfully organized a campaign to legalize abortion late last year .
3. Leading with Values and Centering Those Most Impacted
Abortion was already largely illegal and inaccessible to most people in Poland before the ruling. Many now hope for a case before the European Court of Human Rights – where eventually someone will sue Poland because they were denied an abortion. Striking down the ban through the courts will take time, which many people do not have.
Activists have used ongoing protests as a platform to spread information about how people can access abortion care. Thousands of pregnant Polish people already leave the country each year to get care. The overwhelming majority however come from a high socioeconomic class . In response, the Abortion Dream Team (you may remember our interview with Karo!) helped launched a fund to help Polish people travel abroad, mostly to Germany but also the United Kingdom and Netherlands were later abortion care is available. Their phone number has been widely shared and displayed on banners, signs and billboards, and calls have increased dramatically. This network helping people get abortion care isn’t new, but is now more widely known – helping more people than ever access the care they need.
Protests have also brought public attention to that fact that it’s not a criminal act to self-manage an abortion in Poland, but it is a criminal act to provide or help with an abortion.
To be clear: Any attack on abortion rights is an attack on human rights. The thousand or so abortions that happened in Poland before this ban only represent a small portion of Polish people who wanted an abortion, others were simply unable to get one. Those with the money to do so will travel to another country to get abortion care. Others may secure abortion pills on their own and manage their care at home.
Anti-abortion policies are dehumanizing and cruel. Little has been done to support the families caught in these situations, though new legislation proposes creating additional perinatal hospices for pregnant people who are carrying fetuses expected to die at birth or soon after so they can receive psychological care.  This policy is anything but ‘pro-family’ and pregnant people in Poland deserve better.