Poles defy virus warnings to rally for abortion rights
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Warsaw and across Poland on Friday, defying government orders and risking coronavirus contagion to voice their anger at a court ruling banning almost all abortions.
Waving gay pride flags and chanting anti-government slogans, protesters in Warsaw marched carrying the symbol of their movement - a red thunderbolt.
There were scuffles with far-right counter-protesters but the demonstrations was mostly peaceful on the ninth straight day of protests since the court decision.
"We’re prepared to fight till the end," said Marta Lempart, co-founder of the Women’s Strike movement which is helping to organize the protests.
"We’ve Had Enough!", "My Body, My Choice" read placards held up by the mostly young protesters, who also chanted expletive-ridden anti-government slogans.
The Warsaw mayor’s office said "tens of thousands of people" were taking part in the protest and police said they had made "several arrests" in two incidents.
Women’s rights groups organising the protest face possible prosecution since gatherings of more than five people are currently banned under the coronavirus rules.
Smaller rallies were also expected in dozens of other Polish cities including Krakow and Wroclaw, as well as abroad in Barcelona, Vienna and elsewhere.
Mass protests began last week when Poland’s Constitutional Court ruled that an existing law allowing the abortion of damaged foetuses was "incompatible" with the constitution.
Protesters have focused their anger on the governing ultra-Catholic Law and Justice (PiS) party, whose lawmakers asked the court to rule on the provision.
Poland, a traditionally devout Catholic country of 38 million people, already has one of the most stringent abortion laws in Europe.
There are fewer than 2,000 legal abortions every year, and women’s groups estimate some 200,000 women abort either illegally or abroad.
Once published in the official journal, the constitutional court ruling would ban all abortions except in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.
The government has defended the verdict, saying it will halt "eugenic abortions", but human rights groups have said it would force women to carry non-viable pregnancies.
On Friday, in a bid to find a compromise to defuse public anger, President Andrzej Duda proposed a draft amendment to the abortion law.
The bill would ban abortion in the case of damaged foetuses unless medical tests showed a high probability that the baby would be born dead or with a terminal illness or defect.
Liberal opposition lawmaker Katarzyna Lubnauer said the amendment was "unacceptable".
"This is a proposal along the lines of: I stole 100 zloty from you, but I’ll return 50," she told the news channel TVN24.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had urged people to stay away from the protests, warning of the consequences of holding demonstrations during a pandemic as the health ministry announced a record 21,629 new infections over 24 hours.
"Let us not allow the irresponsible behaviour of some to harm older people, those weakest, the units involved in fighting the epidemic," Morawiecki wrote on Facebook.
Government leaders have condemned the protests as a form of "barbarism" and "vandalism" after some demonstrations against Catholic churches.
Far-right groups have called on Warsaw residents to "defend" churches during Friday’s protest, although organisers have said they do not plan to target religious institutions again.
On Friday, dozens of people stood on the steps of a church on Three Crosses Square in the city centre reciting Hail Marys - separated from the pro-choice protesters by several lines of police.