Last month, Poland’s top court ruled it unconstitutional to have an abortion on the grounds of a foetal defect. In a country in which abortion was already highly restricted, this all but banned the procedure – 98% of all abortions in Poland are because of foetal abnormalities.
In 2016, when the governing rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) attempted to push similar anti-abortion legislation through parliament, it was forced to back down in the face of mass protests and a national women’s strike. So this time, the PiS government chose the judicial route, having already packed the constitutional court with conservative judges.
It may find, though, that this path proves no easier. The decision of the constitutional court has led to even bigger protests, the largest since the days of Solidarity and the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, defying both coronavirus and government bans on protests. The size of the demonstrations has forced the government into delaying implementation of the court ruling and calling for talks with pro-abortion groups.
Preventing the implementation of the constitutional court ruling will, however, be insufficient to protect abortion rights in Poland. It’s true that virtually all abortions will be outlawed by the ruling. But the vast majority of Polish women who have legal abortions do not do so in Poland. So restrictive are the laws that there are just 1,000 legal abortions in Poland each year, while up to 120,000 women are forced to go abroad and a similar number are believed to have backstreet abortions.
Nevertheless, Poles have shown that the verdicts of even stacked supreme courts can be defied by popular protest. Over to you, America.
Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist.