Women’s Protests in Poland

Jakub Chlebda, Protest in Gniezno, Poland.

She is standing in a crowd of other protesters. A facemask covers her mouth and nose, but we can see the woman’s eyes. She is looking directly at the camera. She is holding a hand-made protest sign in Polish – and so is the woman next to her. This sign is more elaborate. Apart from two protest messages, it features a coat hanger, a symbol of unsafe, illegal abortions.

The picture is just one of the thousands of photos taken during the protests that erupted in Poland in October 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, after the Constitutional Tribunal decided to ban abortion in case of fetal abnormalities. Fetal abnormalities – also called embryopathological defects – include genetic disorders that leave the fetus with little to no chances of survival or cause a serious lifelong condition. They have been the most common cause of legal abortions in the country, adding up to approximately 98 percent of just over 1,000 legal abortions conducted annually. With the Tribunal’s ruling, the possibility of getting a legal abortion within the country’s borders has drastically fallen, forcing women and persons with uteri to seek help abroad – which they have been doing anyway. As the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Polish NGO known as Federa) estimates, every year up to 150,000 Polish citizens have to find alternative ways to terminate pregnancies. The other two legal premises for abortion that remain in Polish law concern pregnancies that result from a criminal act or that pose a risk to the pregnant person’s health and/or life.

The ruling of October 22, 2020 was a victory of the conservative, Catholic, anti-choice movements that have been pushing for a change in the abortion law for several years. They have been doing so by submitting citizens’ proposals of the legal act to the Sejm, which is the lower chamber of the bicameral Polish parliament. Following the rules of direct democracy, any group of citizens with voting rights can propose their own legislative project and submit it to the Sejm once they have gathered at least 100,000 signatures under the proposal. Because the conservative right wing has been the political majority since 2015 – and they will continue to be in power at least up until the 2023 elections – the anti-abortion citizens’ proposals have fallen on a particularly fertile political ground.

A previous major attempt at restricting access to abortion in Poland happened back in 2016. That time, it was blocked by Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet [All-Poland Women’s Strike], a feminist social movement that emerged in response to the proposed legislative changes and coordinated the 2016 mass mobilizations known as the “Black protests.” The demonstrations held on “Black Monday” October 3, 2016, made the Sejm drop the anti-abortion bill three days later, on October 6. Perhaps the most iconic protest was held in Warsaw, on Plac Zamkowy (a square next to the Old Town), where thousands of women gathered, shielding themselves from the rain with umbrellas. While three months later in the United States the symbol of the women’s movement was the pink pussy hat, in Poland it was the black umbrella, a coat hanger, and a red lightning bolt.

8th day of Women’s Rights Protest against abortion law amendment / Wroclaw, Poland 31/10/2020

Despite the 2016 strikes being a success, the fight for reproductive rights was far from over. In May 2017, the government restricted access to emergency contraception. In September 2017, pro-life activists started collecting signatures under the “Stop Abortion” citizens’ proposal of the legal act. In October 2017, a group of right-wing deputies sought to challenge the constitutionality of the embryopathological – or, according to right-wing commentators, “eugenic” – premise for abortion. Eugenics is a discriminatory practice that aims to regulate the genetic quality of a population by barring marginalized groups from reproducing or by forcibly sterilizing them. In the context of Europe, eugenics is mostly associated with Nazi Germany. Whenever Polish conservatives are framing abortion due to fetal defects as “eugenic abortion,” they are purposefully discrediting the procedure by evoking negative associations with one of history’s darkest hours.

In November 2017, the “Stop Abortion” Legislative Initiative Committee submitted their proposal to the Sejm together with 830,000 citizens’ signatures. In January 2018, an assembly of Catholic bishops called the Presidium of the Polish Episcopate published an appeal to “stop eugenic abortion.” The same month, deputies of the Sejm rejected the pro-choice counterproposal “Save Women 2017” prepared by women’s rights activists. Instead, they allowed the “Stop Abortion” project to proceed further. The proposal was set aside for some time, but when Law and Justice (in Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, abbreviated to PiS) won the parliamentary elections of October 2019, they had six months to revive it. “Stop Abortion” returned to the Sejm in April 2020, a month after the government officially declared the state of Covid-19 pandemic in Poland. On October 22, 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal – a judiciary organ that, according to the European Union, has been strategically subdued by Law and Justice – declared that abortion due to prenatally diagnosed disability or incurable illness violates the principle of human dignity and is hence unconstitutional. Almost immediately after the verdict, women and their supporters took to the streets to fight for reproductive rights, even despite uncertainty and fear related to a high number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

The protests stalled the publication of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, but not for long. The ruling was published on January 27, 2021, making Polish abortion law one of the strictest in Europe.


The 2020 protests were not the first nor the last in Poland’s turbulent history, but they were unique in many ways. The drive to stop the anti-abortion legislation mobilized persons living in large cities – like the capital city of Warsaw (population 1.7 million) where approximately 100,000 people protested on October 30, 2020 – and those in small towns. Some protesters loudly criticized the Catholic Church, an institution that has been closely involved with the affairs of the state and has curbed reproductive rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ rights since the democratic transition in 1989. Google searches for the term “apostasy” started trending at the time, as Polish citizens tried to figure out how to sever their ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Apostasy is the formal act of renouncing a religion to which one belongs (in Catholicism, one becomes a member of the Church through the act of baptism; in Poland, the cultural tradition and societal pressure of baptizing children has been so strong that even atheists and agnostics feel compelled to do it).

The protests also mobilized Polish youth who put a unique spin on methods of expressing dissent. The two main rallying cries – “This is war” and “Get the fuck out,” as expressed also in Strajk Kobiet’s postulates – resonated both in large cities and small towns. The protesters embraced a rhetoric of uncontained, uncompromising rage. As people’s anger flared up, so did their creativity. In the wake of the demonstrations, social media outlets in Poland were filled with posts and reposts of photos taken during the street protests, depicting a kaleidoscope of homemade cardboard signs with slogans based on wordplay, memes, local and global pop cultural references.

Tony Stark did not die for a world like this

I wish PiS was Tinder so I could swipe left.

[President] Duda thinks in vitro is the name of a pizza parlor.

This Halloween, I’m dressing as Poland.

Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me” became one of the unofficial anthems of the strike, as the protesters marched and danced to the song while substituting the final words in each verse with “Jebać PiS” which (to match the song’s beat) can be translated as “Fuck off, PiS.” People started getting tattoos with symbols of the protest, most often a red lightning bolt associated with Strajk Kobiet or eight asterisks ***** *** that stand for “Jebać PiS.” Tattoo artists donated money to the Strike and to organizations such as Aborcja Bez Granic [Abortion Without Borders] that facilitate access to abortion outside of Poland. Aborcja Bez Granic’s phone number has been spray-painted on walls and billboards, adding up to a raising awareness of where to seek help in the case of unwanted pregnancy.

Some protesters performed the polonaise a dance routine that has been ingrained in generations of Polish citizens as part of a traditional high school prom. The online edition of Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper captured this practice in a viral headline: “Women are blocking Poznań. Downtown at standstill. Female tram driver applauds, gays dance the polonaise.” LGBTQ+ communities supported the protests. Their presence and engagement served as a reminder for cishet (i.e. cisgender and heterosexual) people that reproductive justice concerns not only cisgender heterosexual women and that the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality is closely connected to the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.

The interconnectedness of women’s and LGBTQ+ struggle was particularly evident in the context of mass mobilizations that preceded the protests against the abortion ban. In the summer of 2020, protests erupted in response to Polish President Andrzej Duda’s homophobic statements made during his presidential re-election campaign and to the larger context of systemic homophobia in Poland. One of the ways in which LGBTQ+ protesters and their supporters expressed their dissent included decorating statues and historical monuments with pride flags.

The demonstrations escalated on August 7, 2020, after the arrest of LGBTQ+ activist Margot from the anarcho-queer collective Stob Bzdurom [Stop Bullshit]. Margot was detained on the accusation of the harassment of a driver of Fundacja Pro’s truck and the destruction of the vehicle. Fundacja Pro is a pro-life, anti-LGBT organization known for aggressive visual and audio campaigns in which vehicles are used to promote homophobic messages in public spaces; they drive around cities, displaying graphic pictures and blaring homophobic slurs from speakers. Margot’s detainment – together with the larger context of anti-LGBTQ+ agenda of the Polish right wing and the Roman Catholic Church – resulted in demonstrations of solidarity across Poland and abroad, but also in confrontations with the police. On August 7, the police detained 47 persons demonstrating in Margot’s defense.

One of the main slogans of the fall and winter 2020 protests – “You will never walk alone” – was, in fact, a direct reference to Margot’s detainment and the summer protests that followed.


What emerged as a key feminist value during the 2016 Black protests and the 2020 mobilizations, was a powerful sense of solidarity that could bring together a variety of people through a variety of outlets. Social media, local gatherings, and other new forms of being a feminist and doing feminism, made many young people feel like they belong – even if they have not previously identified as feminist. It made them realize that feminism is for everybody, including for „ordinary women,” non-binary persons, and those who were not previously connected to the existing feminist groups or organizations. The 2020 protests succeeded at challenging the idea that feminism is “only for women.”  Instead of relying on “pedagogical” top-down feminism based on educational activities and collaboration with national and international institutions, younger activists turned towards building connectivity between diverse social struggles through networking, active involvement, learning about various engagements – e.g. environmental activism, urban activism, rural or older women’s activism, and the LGBTQ+ movement – and through embracing everyday forms of activism. Most importantly, they began to think about the surrounding world and their role in it in terms of radical empathy, responsibility, and care.


All 2020 protests took place during the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, before vaccines became available. It is critical to realize the magnitude of the pandemic’s context – as well as the fact that Poland’s conservative government chose this specific moment to propose and embrace anti-abortion legislative measures. Since transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was thought to be primarily airborne, participants felt at risk in their decision to attend large-scale protests. For participants, the risk was a matter of one’s own safety and the safety of one’s family or a household, as well as other protesters. The government used people’s fear to criticize the protests as an epidemiological threat to national safety. The police were deployed to contain the protests and protect the private home of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, who on October 27, 2020, delivered a speech that ignited the protesters’ rage.

Even though the data provided by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project suggest that out of 945 protests related to women’s rights that happened in Poland from October to December 2020 only three protests contained violence, all instances of police officers using tear gas and batons against the protesters provoked a public outrage. The protesters were also subjected to kettling, a police tactic in which demonstrators are contained by a police cordon, and fined for violating Covid-19 restrictions that had been in force at the time. Even though today there is still no evidence that street protests contribute to the spread of the virus, back then it was a common argument (similar concerns and critiques accompanied the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US). Some Polish authorities described this threat in particularly dramatic terms – for example the Chief of Police Jarosław Szymczyk stated that the protesters acted as unwitting agents of the Grim Reaper whenever they stepped out to the street:

(…) the Minister [of Health] said very clearly then that gatherings are generally sites where virus transmission occurs. Beyond any doubt, experts are also talking about it. One of the experts, whom I respect very much, openly said that the participants of the gatherings are potential sowers of death.

– President Andrzej Duda, in an interview for the news station TVN24, praised the Polish police for their professionalism because “nobody has been killed in any intervention in our country.”

However, there are other types of casualties that the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling might cause – and already has.


On October 29, 2021, a lawyer wrote on Twitter about a 22-week pregnant woman who died in hospital in Pszczyna, a town of 25,000 people in southern Poland. Pregnant with a fetus that had been earlier diagnosed with prenatal defects, the woman was admitted to hospital with oligohydramnios, a deficiency of amniotic fluid. Hesitant about terminating the pregnancy, the doctors waited for the fetus to die. In effect, the woman went into septic shock and died. The news rekindled Strajk Kobiet protests. In November 2021, people across Poland gathered and marched to honor the woman’s passing and to once again protest the anti-abortion law. This time they demonstrated under the message “Ani jednej więcej” [Not one woman more].

Her name was Izabela. She died on September 22, 2021. She was 30 years old.

As of this writing, there has been no reversal of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling.