The Rise and Fall of the Black Umbrellas: A Short Story of a Second Abortion Compromise

This blog post was written by youth advocate Anna Szczegielniak, a medical doctor from Poland and member of the Board of Directors of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

On the 22nd September, members of the Sejm (lower house) of Polish parliament decided to reject the “Save Women” civic proposal, which aimed to liberalize Poland’s highly restrictive abortion laws [1]. Instead, Parliament introduced the “Stop Abortion” proposal, pushing for an absolute prohibition on abortion. This bill was hurried through the parliamentary commissions for further proceedings, but not before social media erupted and the Black Protest (or “Czarny Protest”) was announced.

The idea of the protest was based on an Icelandic women’s strike organized decades ago. It lasted only one day but marked the beginning of a true social revolution: on 24th October 1975 almost all women in Iceland left work, including those who were housewives. Instead of a day full of dinner preparations, childcare, and cleaning, they spent the day discussing the idea of equal rights and the role of women in society.

The Black Protest is a grass-roots initiative which grew into a strong social movement starting online in April 2016. Outraged and frustrated by unacceptable public statements made by politicians of various opinions since the very beginning of the public debate on abortion, people decided to go out to fight for their basic rights.

With hopes that the streets of every city across Poland (and beyond) would be flooded with protesters, we woke up on the 3rd October full of optimism. The day was rainy, cold and dull. But as we had hoped, thousands of people armed with banners and umbrellas (which soon became a symbol of the strike and movement) showed up to support Polish women’s reproductive rights. Even though public media, controlled by the ruling Law & Justice Party, tried to diminish the size of the event, constant updates on social media testified to the sheer volume of protesters. The massive strike astonished government representatives, and senior politicians quietly withdrew their support for the new bill. The justice and human rights committee, working within the parliament to review proposed legislation, recommended a rejection of the document. Within days newspapers around the world were announcing victory for Polish women, touting the Czarny protests as the grass-roots initiative to emulate.

But this movement was far from perfect: from the very beginning, the discussions regarding abortion in Poland have been extremely binary, with both sides arguing over women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s bodies. But what if I told you that cis-women are NOT the only people who need access to safe and legal abortions? What if I said that you CANNOT guess one’s biological sex, gender identity or sexual preferences based on physical appearance alone? While I do understand all the challenges related to building gender-neutral vocabulary within the Polish language (which may be a real struggle if you don’t want to sound like a lecturer at the anatomy class), I’m also deeply convinced it’s the perfect time and place to say it out loud and clear: the lives of trans-men, gender queer, gender non-conforming persons, and other gender diverse people who may not self identify as women, are also at stake here! Unfortunately, recognition of this diversity was ignored and the Polish discourse disappointingly lacked inclusivity.

There was a short period of celebration following the protest, with words of solidarity spoken against threats of the ruling party drafting another radical bill, and optimistic polls showing that the majority of people want to see the liberalization of abortion laws. But then the disruption reappeared. In an interview for a well-known newspaper, a prominent and vocal protester admitted that she had had an abortion not because she was raped, not because the fetus was malformed, and not because the pregnancy was dangerous to her own life; but just because she didn’t want it. And this comment is what led to a media storm in which the women was called a “silly little murderer” among other things, most exceeding even my worst expectations.

This violent reaction to this most basic choice showed me that there will be no reproductive rights revolution in Poland. At least not yet. As long as there is no sexuality education in schools, no recognition of gender diversity, and the term “sexual and reproductive health and rights” is seen as nothing more than a difficult-to-translate “western concept”, the only likely success we have to look forward to is a return to the well-known abortion compromise of previous years.

[1] In Poland, abortion is legal in the following three circumstances: when the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy, when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or when the fetus is seriously malformed. Current law is much more restricted than it appears on paper as doctors opt out of providing abortions by claiming to be conscientious objectors. [Abortion Policies: A Global Review. United Nations Publications. 2002. ISBN 92-1-151365-0.]