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Polish demonstrators disrupt Sunday Mass as some of Europe’s tightest abortion laws get tighter

An activist holds a sign that reads “nie,” or “no,” in front of a church in Warsaw on Sunday to protest new restrictions on abortion. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
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BERLIN — Polish women's rights activists disrupted church services Sunday during a weekend of widening demonstrations after a court ruling made some of Europe's strictest laws against abortion tighter.

Thousands have taken to the streets in the past four days to protest the ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal on Thursday that made it illegal to abort a fetus with congenital defects, amounting to a near-ban on abortion.

Scuffles erupted outside the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw on Sunday as a far-right group blocked demonstrators from entering, and crowds gathered outside the presidential palace as night fell. “We have had enough,” chanted demonstrators who entered a cathedral in the western city of Poznań. The congregation responded with chants of, “Barbarians.”

There were also acts of defiance in smaller towns and cities. “Hands off women,” read graffiti on the side of the basilica in Przeworsk in southeastern Poland. Farmers driving tractors joined an evening demonstration in the northeast, according to a local broadcast.

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Poland’s Catholic Church, once considered sacrosanct, has become the target of an increasingly emboldened liberal protest movement galvanized in anger by anti-LGBT rhetoric from the ruling Law and Justice party and church leaders. In recent months, churches have been daubed with rainbow colors and the names of teenagers reported to have died by suicide after bullying because of their sexual orientation.

Women now may legally obtain an abortion only in cases of incest or rape or if a pregnancy endangers their health. Women’s Strike, an abortion rights group that has called for demonstrations, argues the ruling will increase illegal procedures, while women will be forced to carry fetuses with little chance of survival to full term.

Even in a country where the Catholic Church wields significant clout, previous efforts to tighten abortion laws have been shelved after grass-roots protests. Tens of thousands demonstrated across Poland’s biggest cities in 2016 in what was dubbed the “black protests.”

But rights groups have accused the ruling party of using the pandemic to push through tougher laws against abortion at a time when it can restrict street demonstrations.

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“I think they thought we wouldn’t protest in corona,” said Women’s Strike founder Marta Lempart. “The health situation is breaking, and it’s hard, and we are scared, and everyone is scared.” The group is planning to continue demonstrating next week, blocking roads and striking from work.

The Law and Justice party has been accused of stacking the Constitutional Tribunal with supporters. The European Union is among those raising concerns over erosion of the independence of the country’s judiciary.

“This is not a legal ruling, this is a political decision dressed up as a legal ruling,” said Lempart. She said activists plan to mount a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling outlaws about 98 percent of the abortions that take place in Poland. The total number of legal abortions carried out in the country of nearly 40 million in 2019 was 1,110, according to Health Ministry figures cited by the Associated Press. Activists say many women are already forced to go abroad, restricting access to those who can afford to travel.

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights,” Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, tweeted last week.

Dariusz Kalan in Budapest contributed to this report.

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