Skip to main content
Current affairs

The abortion rights crisis in Poland: What’s happening and why Ireland is not immune

Kate Demolder looks at what is happening in Poland as they face ‘a tactical war on progression’, and why Ireland could easily follow suit…


“Ireland used to be like Poland, but not anymore,” Polish activist Beata Geppert once told me in a 2019 interview. “Poland is much more Catholic.”

Back in 2017, Geppert and 13 others peacefully challenged savage far-right protestors calling for a ‘white Poland’ at the annual Independence Day march in Warsaw. Today, the realities of Poland under a far-right regime continue to horrify, but they aren’t isolated incidents. How can we, in Ireland, a nation freshly separated from the grip of religious fundamentalism, ensure that something similar doesn’t happen to us?

As a country whose ongoing Church and State-related issues are seen as the harbingers of misogyny ostracism, residents of the island of Ireland are well-versed in the art of Catholic hegemony. Rigid and framed in fear, to know comprehensive Catholicism is to be fearful of it. Its all-encompassing nature also goes hand in hand with fundamentalism – something our European neighbours to the East know all too well. 

The normalisation of far-right politics in Poland has been bubbling under the surface since late 2015, when the nationalist, social-conservative and Eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS) won an outright majority in the national elections with 37.6% of the vote — something no Polish party has achieved since communist collapse. 

Under the guise of tackling corruption, the party has introduced reforms in a bid to take control of Poland’s courts, culminating in brutal Polish Independence Day marches each November 11 since 2016. 

Previously jubilant in nature, the marches have turned violent in recent years as anti-immigrant rhetoric blended with Christian slogans in a hybrid of militant aesthetics and patriotic sentiments. This meet-up of like-minded conservatives has allowed a number of next steps to fall into place – a ban on sex education, controlled migration and a near total ban on medical abortion. 

Prompted by a constitutional decision on the latter on 22 October 2020 – specifically, removal of the possibility for women to access abortion care on the grounds of severe foetal impairment – women and their families have taken to the streets to protest the deliberate erosion of the rule of law and democratic values in the country, enabling PiS to violate human rights. 

Although the ruling is not yet officially implemented, Polish hospitals are already turning away women seeking abortion care. “This decision is a declaration of war,” Marta Lempart, a protest organiser, told The New York Times. 

The European Commission has already expressed serious concerns regarding breaches of the rule of law in Poland, and has proposed making EU funding to Member States conditional on respect for the EU values of the right to access healthcare, the right to privacy, and the right to education. In fact, as of 5 November, this proposal is set to become a reality as a provisional agreement linking the EU budget to the respect of rule of law was reached.

We’ve seen very recently how the mainstreaming of extreme political positions has caused a dangerous rift in Western culture (storming of the Capitol, anti-lockdown protests, Brett Kavanaugh’s election to the Supreme Court) and how female-presenting bodies are often the ones who bear the brunt – but while the societal radicalisation on full display in places like the US and Poland has shocked and appalled us, we must remember that we are not immune. Far from it, in fact. 

Although the “far right” remains as a ‘fragmented minority movement in Ireland’ according to Irish Times crime correspondent Conor Gallagher, experts say there is a “dangerous rise” in openly intimidating and violent behaviour by certain groups in Ireland – and social media is promoting these acts and aiding the groups’ popularity and recruitment.

“We have seen a rise in hate crime,” Dr Natasha Droney, specialist in international terrorism, recently told a SAR Consultancy conference on The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, citing a recent incident in south Dublin where girls wearing hijabs were egged and attacked by a group of Irish girls. “We think we are almost immune to that threat – we aren’t. We are ripe for a group to emerge if they are able to sell their narrative in the right way.”

Echoing her findings is Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who recently said: “I am concerned about right-wing extremism. We can see evidence of it on our shores as we have seen it spread across Europe.”

As a term, ‘far-right’ is subjective and needlessly vague. To a liberal, it means someone against progressive change. To a conservative, it means the conservation of legacy. To the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “the more extreme supporters or advocates of social, political, or economic conservatism or reaction, based generally on a belief that things are better left unchanged.”

We’ve seen the most recent facet of far-right extremism in Ireland by way of anti-mask protests or groups picketing against Direct Provision centres in their local towns. But, arguably the most dangerous kind on our side of the Atlantic has been focused on Eastern Europe and its redirection of shame and women’s rights. 

A peculiar by-product of the pandemic has been the provision of opportunity for reactionary conservative groups to advance fringe perspectives. A collective pandemic fatigue has allowed some to seek out change, sometimes violently, like last weekend on Grafton Street. In Warsaw, activists had to resort to virtual protesting when two draconian laws – seeking to ban access to abortion and criminalise sex education, while equating homosexuality with paedophilia – were debated in parliament last year at a time when resistance was trickier to navigate than ever before. 

Draginja Nadazdin, director of Amnesty International Poland, called the act of rushing recklessly retrogressive laws under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis “unconscionable”. Pair that with the fact that, since late 2015, the Polish government has adopted and implemented a set of legislative and policy measures that have undermined the independence of the judiciary; it is a tactical war on progression. 

“We are dealing with incompetence, corruption, a total decay of the state, so these men are doing what they know best — taking away rights and freedoms from the citizens,” Marta Lempart, a protest organiser, told television station TVN24. “This is about women, but also about all other minorities and majorities that Law and Justice hates.”

Closer to home, similar changes are being made under the cloak of misdirection. Police have been handed more power to monitor quarantining, Brexit spin-off projects (see: Irexit) have gained ground and the Great Replacement theory (an ethno-nationalist theory warning that an indigenous European—e.g., white—population is being replaced by non-European immigrants) has caused mixed race families to suffer indefinitely. 

Furthermore, Ireland’s recent progressive changes – the same-sex marriage and Eighth Amendment referenda – caused conservative minorities to feel threatened, forcing them to think beyond the borders. Despite the uptake on the above still residing within splinter-group status (most notably, Ireland remains consistently among the most Euro-enthusiastic members of the bloc) any anti-liberal, pro-white agenda should worry members of a progressive nation. It all starts somewhere. 

The first element of Poland’s decline was a mistrust in government – something that’s crept slowly into Irish daily narratives. I’m not saying that politicians are above reproach, far from it, but with a psyche hellbent on pushing against the oppressor (blame colonisation) we’ve often found ourselves in hot water when it comes to authority – something that doesn’t really work during a global pandemic. 

COVID-19, and the background noise of Brexit, have also brought a fleeting impermanence to Irish politics, a capacity to build up or tear down political careers in an instant. Irish EU Trade Commissioner Phil “Big Phil” Hogan’s some 40-year career was dismantled by GolfGate, former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his caretaker government’s handling of the pandemic enjoyed high approval ratings some six weeks after a brutal general election.

It is this swift changing of minds that we need to be a little worried about, for our own sake if not for those looking to get change done. This quick-fix narrative ties in neatly with Cancel Culture in a way that tears normal people down for reasons as flippant as they are forgetful. 

It’s also contributing to the opening of opportunity structures for extremists. By ‘cancelling’ someone, you’re claiming that what they’ve done is wrong which suggests that what you do is right. A dangerous precedent, most certainly during an “Infodemic” – an overabundance of information, both online and offline – which sees fringe groups battle for screen time. In a number of ways, it’s a perfect storm. 

One way we can help – individually as well as collectively – is to shrink the pool from which new members of anti-lockdown protestors can come. Much like cults and new religions, violent far-right groups like these thrive on vulnerability and the mentally unwell. The HSE’s pioneering free 24/7 text service 50808 has been groundbreaking in its reaching out to people in crisis. Having already helped thousands of people in one of the most mentally taxing times in living memory, it could be vital in fundamentally shrinking numbers looking to revolt.

You can do the same by reaching out to friends, family and neighbours who have experienced isolation in unparalleled measures over the past year. The best time to start a focused effort against the far right in Ireland was yesterday. The next best time is now.


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash