In the wake of the Black Protest for reproductive rights in Poland, women living in other restrictive societies like Northern Ireland can be encouraged by the success of this campaign which emerged from a grassroots movement and took on a global scale.
Having lived in both countries, I have felt compelled to compare the recent abortion debates in both and examine what the Green movement can do to build on progress. After leaving Northern Ireland for Poland a couple of years ago, the settling-in process inevitably involved discovering cultural similarities that would help me feel at home. I found that we, in fact, have a rival in our love of potatoes, we share a long history of migration and violent struggle for identity, with huge diasporas. I also wryly noted that the charismatic Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the now ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), with his fiery, polarising oratory, reminded me of the late Ian Paisley, though on opposing sides of Christianity.
Indeed, there are many points of comparison that can be drawn for we are both racially homogenous, politically insular, quasi-theocracies stuck in the past. We share some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and have been drop locations for abortion pills from a drone, organised by Netherlands-based ‘Women on Waves’, in conjunction with pro-choice groups in the respective countries. My move certainly strengthened my convictions as a Green Party member and most recently, I have found myself experiencing the same familiar emotions of horror and outrage at the state of women’s reproductive rights. In February of this year, a proposal to allow abortion in Northern Ireland in cases of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ was defeated in the Assembly, leaving it only permissible in cases of permanent and serious risk to the woman’s health. On 3rd October, thousands of women all over Poland staged a strike from professional and domestic work and marched through the streets in black to symbolise the death of their rights. This Czarny Protest (Black Protest) was in response to ruling party PiS’s proposal for a near-total ban on abortion where it is already only allowed in cases of rape, irreparable damage to the foetus, or threat to the woman’s life.
That no single European-wide policy on abortion exists is a recognition of differing religious and societal norms present in the union. Reports on reproductive rights have been presented to the European Parliament and then rebuffed on these bases. After first rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, it was accepted by referendum in Ireland in 2009 after amendments to placate voters which included guaranteeing no imposition of change to abortion law. An obvious comparison can of course be made between the Republic of Ireland and Poland, as the two bastions of Catholicism in Europe and their adherence to the Vatican’s stance on the sanctity of life from the moment of conception.
In Northern Ireland the situation is, as ever, slightly more complicated. Like Poland, it maintains a religiosity with a relatively high percentage of church attendance. However, the largest party in the Northern Irish power-sharing assembly is overwhelmingly Protestant, namely the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Its former leader, Ian Paisley, famously denounced Polish Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist. Sinn Fein, the second largest party in the Assembly and the third largest in the Irish Parliament, has an almost exclusively Catholic support-base. Gerry Adams, as the party’s president, recently oversaw a policy change on abortion, applying both north and south of the border. The party has now dropped its outright opposition in favour of allowing it in limited circumstances such as ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’. At the party congress in Derry/Londonderry in 2015, Adams said, “Obviously, there are some women who want to continue with their pregnancy to full term and we need to support them, but there are others who feel they are not able to do that and we need to deal with both groups with the absolute maximum of support”. A socialist party in its formation, this is a long overdue recognition of the class issues intertwined with reproductive autonomy. Northern Irish women who can afford it typically travel to England for abortions, just as in Poland they travel to Germany and other neighbouring countries. Those that can’t are left with health endangering choices. Although still far off a pro-choice position, this urging of compassion is in direct contradiction to Kaczyński’s recent statement: “We will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, [women] end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name”. Sinn Fein now stands accused of deserting devout Catholic nationalist voters, who, if the British identity issue can be overlooked, may actually be wooed by arch-rival DUP, with its puritanical stance on gay marriage and abortion. The Green Party was until very recently, the sole advocate of a woman’s right to choose in Northern Ireland, being the only party without any religious ties.
Despite the issue sustaining a fairly substantial presence in both political and media spheres for years, bolstered by the 2015 Belfast High Court ruling that the Victorian-era law breached adequate provision of human rights, Northern Ireland has never seen such a widely mobilised protest movement as that of Poland this month. The public was reminded of its draconian criminal penalty in April – the harshest in Europe: possible life imprisonment both for the woman undergoing an unlawful abortion and for anyone assisting her – when a 21 year old was given a suspended sentence after a self-induced termination. In contrast, the Polish government were proposing to increase the maximum jail term for practitioners from two years to five. PiS now face a possible loss of support from those who voted for them on economic policy grounds, yet are now disgusted by their attack on women. Likewise, the Northern Irish government has been revealed to be out of step with the electorate on this issue, as the latest poll by Amnesty International shows 70% of people there support easing restrictions of eligibility.
Reason for hope
In many ways, the Czarny Protest movement in Poland has been a resounding success. It can claim victory for the unexpected U-turn by the Polish government in abandoning the draft proposal and be encouraged that grassroots actions really do work. The use of social media in garnering worldwide attention has been hugely empowering, especially since another of PiS’s controversial moves was to enforce tighter control over state media. A renewed strength and enthusiasm can be felt among Polish women in fighting for their human rights. However, a second strike is planned for October 24th to sustain momentum amidst fears that the government, with their large parliamentary majority, will simply use this opportunity to push through a compromise of sorts and restrict abortion to cases of rape and when the woman’s life in danger. Prime minister Beata Szydło’s recent announcement of increased economic support for families with disabled children, while desperately needed and welcomed, combined with Kaczynski’s remarks as quoted earlier, certainly hint at this.
Yet this ‘compromise’ would still be more lenient than the law in Northern Ireland as it stands. I sincerely hope that the palpable international support for Polish women will encourage action in my home country and foster a ‘solidarity of the ovaries’. With Poles now constituting the biggest group of non-British born residents in Northern Ireland, there is ample opportunity for dialogue. As this demographic is not swayed by historical loyalist/nationalist tribal politics, the Green Party of Northern Ireland can offer a viable alternative.
PiS already have a strained relationship with the EU and have no doubt been buoyed by Brexit in resisting perceived unwarranted interference in internal affairs. As the Visegrad group of countries-Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – united by their anti-migrant stance, form closer ties, abortion will likely become a key issue in all four. The enactment of Hungary’s new constitution in 2011, enshrined in law the protection of human life from the moment of conception, possibly paving the way for added restrictions to abortion access. European Greens must continue to loudly endorse and to aid the protection and further progression of women’s rights by utilising its unique network. Northern Irish women need to know that although they may no longer be part of the EU, there is a European alliance of support for their right to choose.