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Poland Backs Down On Abortion Ban After Extraordinary Protests


The voices of tens of thousands of women, wearing black, standing in the rain, were heard this week in Poland. Their nationwide strike on Monday was a protest against a proposal for a total ban on abortion in the country. Yesterday, Polish lawmakers rejected it. Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, allowing it only in the cases of rape or incest, if the life of the mother is in danger, or if tests show the health of the fetus is severely compromised. Joining me now from Warsaw is Justyna Pawlak. She's Reuters' bureau chief for Central and Eastern Europe. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: So this was a pretty striking protest for, you know, a very Catholic country with a government that's been leaning more conservative. Have you seen anything like this before?

PAWLAK: Well, certainly Poland has known many protests - many streets protests that have done a lot of good in Poland. For this government, it's the first time that so many people have actually come out to the street to protest a policy. And I think it became the first domestic setback for the ruling conservatives.

MCEVERS: So describe what it was like on the streets during these protests in Warsaw.

PAWLAK: Well, there really were hundreds - tens of thousands of women all across the country, maybe about 30,000 in Warsaw alone, but in many other cities and towns across the country. What's interesting - it wasn't just the protests of people in the street. There were a lot of other events. There were blood drives, book readings. Many women didn't go to work and just took the day off. Many women came to work wearing black. Government offices had to shut down parts of the country. Restaurants had to close down in Warsaw. There were lists on the internet that you could track which restaurants were closed for the protest. So it was really a wide-ranging action.

MCEVERS: Was it that it was just so well-organized, or was it just something that caught on?

PAWLAK: I think it really caught on. There wasn't a real kind of serious organization committee. And what's interesting is, you know, Poland, as you said, is a very conservative country still, even though the power of the church and the - kind of the sway of the church over the heart and soul of churchgoers has been waning, bishops still have a lot of - a lot of influence over how people vote and how they think. There's still quite a lot of opposition for abortion on demand in Poland, but many women felt that these new proposed restrictions just simply went too far.

MCEVERS: What did you hear from some of the women and the men who were out there protesting?

PAWLAK: Well, women were concerned that giving birth was going to be risky, that they would be forced to carry a child that they didn't want to carry, you know, if they were raped, if the child was sick. They were afraid that, at times, their health or their life might be compromised and the doctors would get to choose whose life and whose health is more important. And they felt that this should be a choice of the women.

MCEVERS: How much of a setback is this to the ruling party?

PAWLAK: Well, we still have to wait and see on that. The prime minister later came out to say that the government will earmark money to go through with a difficult pregnancy. The government has introduced a lot of other policies that governments in the West, for example, have felt were sort of an attack on democracy or on democratic standards.


PAWLAK: And there were protests about that in the country, but not big ones, and it hasn't really affected the government so far.

MCEVERS: Right. And one of those changes was, earlier this year, the ruling party tried to reform the constitutional court. And this is one of the things critics said was undermining democratic standards in the country. But that didn't seem to hurt the popularity of the party as much as this particular issue.

PAWLAK: No, a lot of people say that constitutional court is a little bit of an abstract idea for many voters. And the economic policies of this government are extremely popular. They've introduced, for example, a near-universal child benefit. And that's extremely, extremely popular, and it's helping sustain them in opinion polls.

MCEVERS: That's Justyna Pawlak. She is Reuters' bureau chief for Central and Eastern Europe. She joined us from Warsaw. Thank you very much.

PAWLAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.