'I'm afraid to live here': Third night of protests in Poland after abortion law takes effect

WARSAW, Poland – Some carried posters that read, “I’m scared to live here.” Others sang Aretha Franklin’s “Think”. But everyone was determined to express their outrage over the near-total ban on abortion in Poland.

For the third consecutive year, thousands flocked to the streets of the Polish capital Warsaw and other cities across the country on Friday to protest a Constitutional Court decision on abortion.

The ruling, which went into effect on Wednesday, makes termination of pregnancies with fetal defects unconstitutional and removes the most widely used legal ground for an abortion in the Eastern European nation.

Demonstrations, led by the women’s strike rights group, broke out almost immediately after they came into force.

Protesters take part in a protest against the ruling restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland on Friday. Aleksandra Szmigiel / Reuters

Among the protesters was Ola Bakowska, 31, who called NBC News on Saturday that she took to the streets on Wednesday to “express her feelings” and “show my disagreement with the new law.”

She added that she was encouraged by the number of people who emerged from all of the protests.

While abortion was the focus, climate change activists and members of the LGBTQ communities were among those who took to the streets for fear of greater erosion of civil liberties.

Among them, Marek Elas, 36, an environmental activist who works with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Poland, said Thursday that the Polish government “is working towards restricting human rights”.

He added that “the government thought women were the easiest to meet, which turned out to be untrue.”

Bakowska, a project manager, agreed that many of the protesters wanted to express their broader anger at the government, which, with its “traditional but outdated values,” “targets the rights of many people, not just women.”

LGBTQ communities are among the suffering, she said. “It’s like they’re invisible,” she added.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, also known as PiS, promised a return to more conservative social norms before coming to power in 2015. Abortion has since become an extremely controversial issue in the predominantly Catholic country.

It supported the abortion law passed in October, which was followed by nationwide protests.

Under the new rules, an abortion can only be performed in the event of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health or life is at risk, which puts Poland outside of the European mainstream. Doctors who defy the law could face jail time.

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Krzysztof Sobolewski, a senior PiS official, told the state-run PAP news agency on Saturday that the protests were illegal and defied social distancing rules in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with 14 arrests across the country and on Thursday evening more were made on Friday evening.

Attorney Eliza Rutynowska told NBC News on Friday that some protesters had been held in police stations up to 25 miles outside of town. NBC News was unable to independently verify this.

Many of her volunteer clients had told her they were angry about “how disregarded human rights are in Poland today,” she said.

“It may seem like Poland is moving to the right, but inside we are seeing a strong step towards freedom,” she added. “This is essentially a struggle for our rights and our lives.”

The symbol for the women’s strike is seen near the police during a protest against the ruling restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland on Friday. Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Reproductive and human rights groups have condemned the restrictive abortion law and warned of a wider erosion of civil liberties and a shift to the right by the government.

“This move is an outrageous violation of the fundamental duty of public authorities to protect the lives and health of their citizens,” said Irene Donadio of the European Network of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

But for Beata Jedynak, 60, who supports the government, watching the protests made her feel “devastated and disgusted,” she told NBC News.

“I just don’t know what this struggle is about, whether to overthrow the government or introduce completely leftist views,” she said.

But Bakowska said they would “not give up” and added, “We will continue to protest.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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