From the November-December 2016 issue of News & Letters
by Terry Moon
Now that anti-abortion fanatics are soon to control the White House, Supreme Court and Congress, it is helpful to look at the recent victory for abortion rights that Polish women had against their own Catholic Church-mired rightwing government.
On Oct. 3 tens of thousands of women and their supporters, dressed in black, took to the streets, engaged in a general strike and skipped classes. They said “No!” to the Polish parliament’s plans to worsen an already draconian anti-abortion law by outlawing all abortions. It would eliminate exceptions—for danger to the life of the mother or fetus, grave fetal defects or a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest—which currently are only allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The proposed new law would only allow abortion if the woman’s life is “directly threatened.”
WHEN ABORTION IS ILLEGAL WOMEN DIE
Such a law would send women to prison for five years for having an abortion; criminalize miscarriages; and lead to more back alley and butcher abortions and women dying.
Polish women would not let this stand! Their leaflet went beyond abortion rights: “We demand access to reliable sex education, contraception and effective in vitro procedures. We oppose further tightening of abortion laws.”
Over 30,000 black-clad women marched in freezing rain in Warsaw’s Castle Square as demonstrations also took place in 60 other Polish cities. They chanted: “We want doctors, not missionaries!” and signs read “My uterus, my opinion,” “Dead women can’t have any babies!” and the classic, and so very apt for Poland: “Not the church, not the state, women will decide our fate!” One news commentator there said: “People were astonished….It was amazing to feel the energy, the emotional intensity was incredible.”
But it was not only the massive size of the demonstrations or their passion for a freer Poland; it was as well the revolutionary history of Polish women that caused the rabidly anti-abortion Prime Minister and the ruling Law and Justice party to back down in what has been reported as a “humiliating climbdown.”
REVOLUTIONARY HISTORIC MEMORY
That history includes the great Polish woman revolutionary and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of the German revolution of 1919. More recently it includes the women in the great labor self-organization of 1980-81, Solidarnosc. Women not only started the strike, they not only made it possible for it to last as long as it did, they as well broadened what a labor strike and organization should mean so that it would take into account women’s demands.
They created the concept of “horizontal solidarity,” where a workshop that was too small to win on its own—as many women’s workshops were—appealed to workers in larger or more vital industries to include their demands with theirs, thus giving more strength to both groups of workers. It meant that women’s demands for childcare, or even for better water pressure, were included alongside those for better wages and working conditions. (See News & Letters, “The revolutionary activity of Polish women,” March 1982, and “Solidarity with Polish women!” Jan.-Feb. 1982.)
It is this historic memory of what women are capable of—revolutionary thought and action—as well as the thousands in the street in October that the right-wing Polish leaders feared so much that they backed down on what they had previously expected to be a done deal. Revolution and the thought behind it and the thought it creates, are what all tyrants fear the most.
As we face a future here in the U.S. that looks exceedingly dark at the moment, especially for women’s right to control our own bodies and lives, the message of revolutionary thought and activity as a powerful weapon against reaction will be in the forefront of our minds.