WARSAW — Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged Friday on central Warsaw as a near-total ban on abortion triggered some of the largest street protests since the fall of communism, drawing ire from far-right nationalist groups who mobilized to counter them.

The protests, now in their ninth day, drew crowds despite spiking coronavirus cases, as Poles angered by the ruling last Thursday and the perceived creeping autocracy under Poland's ruling Law and Justice party took to the streets. 

Streams of demonstrators, many of them young women, made their way toward Parliament, packing the major roads. Demonstrators wore red lightning bolts — the symbol of the protests, which is also freshly graffitied on walls around the city — and directed obscenities at the ruling party.

The decision by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, which makes abortion illegal except in cases of incest, rape or when the mother's life is in danger, has spurred demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. Polls have shown that a majority of the population is against the move, even in such a deeply Catholic country.

While the protests have been largely peaceful, police have used tear gas to disperse crowds over the past week, and churches have become a point of friction, with demonstrators disrupting Sunday Mass and statues of Pope John Paul II vandalized.

The atmosphere on the streets took a tenser turn after Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the country's ruling Law and Justice party, urged party supporters late in the week to defend places of worship, with the far-right heeding the call.

“We must defend Polish churches, we must defend them at any cost,” Kaczynski said in a video statement. “This attack is meant to destroy Poland.”

A cluster of masked far-right nationalists, some wearing military-style fatigues, gathered on the steps of the capital's Holy Cross Church on Friday ahead of the demonstrations.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, the men blocked the steps leading to the entrance of the Baroque building on both sides.

“We come here and pray and keep watch so that bystanders who might want to desecrate something or disrupt the Mass do not come in,” said Pawel Jankowski, dressed in a brown leather jacket and a baseball cap, adding that he has been taking shifts guarding the Roman Catholic church since Sunday.

The self-styled “National Guard” had mobilized Monday, created by organizers of the National March, an annual gathering of ultranationalists held each year on Polish Independence Day. In a tweet earlier that day, Robert Bakiewicz, head of the Independence March Association, described it as a “civic defense of Christians” formed to defend “the values of Latin civilization.”

The group sang from the church steps as abortion rights demonstrators made their way past Friday evening. “Every woman should have the choice to decide until the 12th week,” said a woman who called herself Karolina and declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. She said that as a medic, she has seen many babies deserted at birth. “It should not be up to a tribunal to decide.”

While Kaczynski has shown no sign of wavering, Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the Law and Justice party, distanced himself from the legislation Friday, saying he would introduce a bill to Parliament that would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects where there is deemed to be no chance of the fetus’s survival.

Thursday’s ruling outlaws about 98 percent of the 1,110 abortions that take place in Poland each year, with right’s groups saying forcing women to carry nonviable fetuses to term amounts to a breach of human rights.

A poll this week by IBRiS pollsters said 66 percent of respondents opposed last week's ruling and 69 percent want a referendum on the ban. Some 430,000 people demonstrated Wednesday alone, according to Polish police, in 410 gatherings across the country.

“We are not in favor of abortion on demand,” said a young woman who gave only a first name, Monika, and was carrying a placard reading “my body my choice.” “But a woman should have a choice in the case of the most severe defects,” she said.

In a statement published on the president’s website, Duda noted that he personally believes abortion in cases of fetal defects is unconstitutional but also recognized that the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling makes abortion impossible even in cases of lethal fetal defects.

“This is an extremely delicate and painful situation for every mother, for every parent. In the case of lethal defects, the child’s death is inevitable. The protection of his life is therefore beyond human power,” he said.

It is not the first time Poland has seen protests over its abortion laws. Marta Lempart founded the Woman’s Strike movement, the main organizers behind the current demonstrations, in 2016, when there was an earlier attempt to tighten abortion laws.

As Parliament debated that bill, women dressed in black to mourn the death of their reproductive rights in what was dubbed the “Black Protest.” The legislation stalled.

This week, the group has blocked roads and called for Poles to go on strike. Lempart said the court ruling is a political decision “dressed up” as a legal one.

The Constitutional Tribunal has been stacked with Law and Justice appointees, and the country’s judicial revisions have come under censure from the European Union.

“This is now a national issue,” Lempart said this week. “People are angry.”

Morris reported from Berlin.