Thousands march in Poland against near-total ban on abortion

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, January 29, 2021.
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, January 29, 2021. Photo credit: Reuters

Several thousand people marched through cities across Poland on Friday (local time) in a third day of protests against a near-total ban on abortion, put into effect by the conservative government earlier this week.

Defying coronavirus restrictions, hundreds gathered in central Warsaw chanted, "Freedom, equality, abortion on demand". Some carried placards reading, "I am afraid to live here", and, "Banning abortion discriminates against the poor".

The protests follow a Constitutional Tribunal ruling from October that terminating pregnancies with foetal defects was unconstitutional, eliminating the most frequently used case for legal abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation.

The ruling came into effect late on Wednesday (local time) when it was published in the official gazette.

Under the new rules, abortion can be performed legally only in the case of rape or incest and when the mother's health or life are at risk, putting Poland outside the European mainstream. Doctors defying the law face imprisonment.

The country was rocked by weeks of nationwide protests following the court decision on October 22. The demonstrations quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government and the powerful Catholic Church.

PiS has rejected opposition accusations that it had influenced the court in its decision, although it is one of the judicial bodies PiS overhauled during reforms that the European Union said have politicised the courts.

Abortion has become a highly divisive issue since PiS came to power in 2015, promising a return to a traditional, pious society mixed with generous state handouts.

Krzysztof Sobolewski, a senior PiS official, said the protests were illegal because of social distancing restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

"People who organise these protests... should realise they are risking the lives of the participants and those close to them, because it threatens, God forbid, a new coronavirus wave," he was quoted as saying by the state PAP news agency.

In Warsaw, police in riot gear lined major roads in Warsaw, as protesters marched to Aretha Franklin's 'Think' and 'We Will Rock You' by Queen.

Organisers said pepper spray was deployed against one of the protest leaders. A Reuters witness said one pepper spray exchange was initiated by someone among the march participants.

Poland has reported 6,144 new COVID-19 infections and 336 deaths, and has recorded more than 1.2 million cases.