Widespread protests have roiled Poland since Thursday, after the government imposed tighter restrictions on abortion. Hundreds of thousands are marching through streets, blocking traffic, holding sit-ins in churches and amassing in front of the residences of high-ranking clergy. Protesters have called for a nationwide strike on Wednesday.

Here’s what sparked the protests. The conservative populist government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party eliminated grave fetal defects as a justification for obtaining an abortion. These cases constitute 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland.

Poland has severe restrictions on abortion

Since 1993, Poland’s restrictive abortion law allowed for abortions in three circumstances: rape or incest, grave fetal defects or threat to the life of the mother. As a result, abortions in Poland dropped from 100,000 to around 1,000 a year. (In 2001, the year with the lowest abortion rate on record, only 124 legal abortions were performed.)

In 98 percent of these abortions, the fetus had severe defects incompatible with life. Most genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome or other trisomies, do not constitute a valid reason for abortion. The life or health of the mother is rarely a consideration. Given the reluctance of doctors to allow or to perform abortion, Polish women rarely terminate pregnancies, even when severe fetal defects are discovered during the pregnancy. In one highly publicized case, a hospital director refused to approve an abortion though other doctors determined that severe brain defects meant the fetus had no chance of survival.

The latest PiS move, critics claim, effectively abolished legal abortion in Poland. The government did so without a parliamentary bill, debate or public consultation. Instead, the Constitutional Tribunal, packed by PiS since 2017 with party loyalists, declared the fetal defect clause unconstitutional.

The government sought to deflect the backlash

One reason the PiS government went through the judiciary is because the majority of Poles support the fetal defect clause, even if abortion itself is controversial. This is not the first time the government has tried to eliminate what it calls “eugenic” abortion. Similar attempts to restrict abortion in April 2016 prompted “black marches” as hundreds of thousands of women turned out in the rain, wearing black and protesting the government proposals. In 2016, the government backed down.

In 2020, PiS sought to mitigate the inevitable political backlash by having the Constitutional Tribunal declare the fetal defects clause unconstitutional. PiS also hoped to reassure its religious and conservative supporters of its political credentials by producing a ruling the Catholic Church had long sought. (Poland’s Parliament passed a law last month for the protection of animals, a move unpopular among the PiS rural electorate because, among its other clauses, it banned the lucrative fur farm industry.)

Protesters are taking on the Catholic Church

The ruling prompted an immediate and furious response from thousands of protesters. The majority are young women — but this time support comes a far broader cross-section of Polish society, including rowdy soccer fans, union locals, tram and bus drivers, and hundreds of taxi drivers who blocked the streets of Warsaw so the protests could pass. Large cities and smaller towns, including PiS electoral strongholds, joined in.

The protests are also far more vehement than they have been in the past: Protesters adopted a lightning symbol as their focal point, and chanted “This is war.” Protesters’ banners have angry and defiant slogans, heavily laced with profanity. Predictably, government representatives criticized their tone as vulgar and primitive.

For the first time ever, the protests have shifted to the churches, a symbolically telling move in a Catholic-majority country where the Catholic Church has wielded enormous moral authority for decades.

On Sunday, clergy faced protesters at masses, dressed as handmaids — a reference to author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of female repression. Other protesters sat quietly in church aisles, holding signs saying “let us pray for the right to abortion.” Young protesters surrounded priests outside churches, and loudly denounced the clergy in small towns, traditionally the bastion of conservative Catholicism in Poland. Protesters began confronting bishops and archbishops in front of their often-palatial residences. In Warsaw, PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński surrounded his house with security officers to prevent the protests.

The church is losing its moral authority

The government may be backtracking in the face of these widespread protests. President Andrzej Duda, in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus, and PiS representatives have called for “greater precision” in the legal ruling, even as they criticized the “aggression and hatred” of the protesters. The governing party has announced it will meet to discuss the situation.

The breadth and intensity of the protests suggest members of the public are holding the PiS and the church culpable, however. The moral authority of the church in Poland may be at a tipping point. In other heavily Catholic countries, such as Ireland, the Catholic Church lost its enormous moral authority when society lost is faith in the church’s good intentions. In the 1990s, for instance, the Irish church went from being all-powerful to being politically irrelevant after the revelation that a prominent bishop had been maintaining his lover with church funds, and that the church had been covering up endemic sexual abuse. The church was unable to stop either the 2015 Irish referendum that legalized same-sex marriage or the 2018 referendum that legalized first-trimester abortion on demand.

In Poland, the church’s own research shows religious belief has been declining over the last 20 years. Church interventions in politics have always been unpopular, with a majority condemning them outright. The backlash against the abortion ruling in Poland may be the next step in the church’s fall from grace.

Anna Grzymala-Busse (@AnnaGBusse) is Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies at Stanford University.

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