All too often women are reminded how little their voices matter, how little say they have over how people view them, and how little can be done about it. This silencing takes many forms: it is illustrated when feminists are dismissed as ‘man-haters’; when women in a position of power are described as bossy, or a ‘diva’; when we tell women that catcalling is just complimentary. When conclusive studies prove the harm to women’s mental health on contraceptive pills, yet the male contraceptive pill was ultimately dismissed due to the potentially negative effects on their emotionality; we see it when a woman learns the appropriate jail sentence for her rape is six months, or three with good behaviour. Perhaps worst of all, we see it when a bill is drafted such that her choice not to have a child can mean a prison sentence.
Poland’s current laws on abortion make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy except in cases of rape, incest, threat to the mother’s life, or severe fetal disability, making it already one of the strictest EU countries when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. So when the country’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) set a proposal for examination by a parliamentary commission – to ban abortion in all its forms (except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk), correspondingly making it punishable by up to five years in prison. Women took to the streets in the thousands to protest on what is now referred to as ‘Black Monday.’ It cannot be true that those in power did not know the impact that such a reform would have on women in the country, since even conservative statistics have repeatedly shown that the number of illegal abortions carried out on Polish women each year outweigh the legal by the thousands, with exact figures estimating around 2,000 legal and up to 100,000 illegal abortions each year.
No secrets were made of the potential fallout of the total abortion ban, and in its original wording it left some doctors sceptical of the possibility of carrying out even routine prenatal testing, for fear of risking the foetuses’ life and landing themselves with up to three years in prison for terminating a pregnancy. In a worst-case scenario, women with potentially fatal pregnancy-related illnesses could have found themselves without treatment – since many of these life saving surgeries put the health of the foetus at risk.
Although Black Monday and partnership protests around the world were successful, and PiS released a statement saying that they would not back the proposal, essentially halting it in its tracks, to celebrate now is to miss a wider problem. Because this reform wasn’t just a radical petition, it was a petition with 450,000 signatures, with initial backing from PiS and the Polish Prime Minister, with strong support from the Roman Catholic Church and which made it through enough legal barriers to be set up for examination. Because sexism and the desire to control women, their bodies and consequently their rights is not something we have overcome. Feminism is not a problem of the past or a fad to be dismissed as outdated, women all over the world are still protesting for equal rights and fighting battles that have been fought for generations. There is still a lot of work to do, and that works starts with us confronting such institutionalised sexism and calling it out for the mistreatment and oppression that it is.
Image credit: Zorro2212