For Formal Freedoms and Real. The ‘Black Protest’ in Poland

Given that Poland has one of the lowest natality rates in EU, and its population does not comprise from nuns, priests and friars but regular people, one could expect abortion rate to reach levels similar to other European countries, i.e. approximately 150,000 per year. And yet, officially speaking, the number of abortions performed in the country barely exceeds 1,000.

Those are the legal pregnancy terminations, i.e., permitted as they fulfil one of three exceptions to the abortion ban in Poland. They would be either pregnancies resulting from rape/incest or ones with severely damages foetus and/or posing serious risk to woman’s life and health.
Officially, the Black Protest stood up to defend these three exceptions (formal freedoms, however limited) to the ban. As a matter of fact, though, the Black Protesters were also defending the reality of abortion underground and the real freedom to decide about oneself that is well available to anybody with some financial means. The cost of underground abortion is now about 3 000 zloty (700 euro). It was “only” a bit more than half this price before the attempt to change the law. Yet it is still available as is the “abortion tourism” for those who prefer to terminate their pregnancies in one of the neighbouring countries where the procedure is legal and available on demand.
This tension between formal and real freedoms of women in Poland reflects a broader aporia of two colliding social systems overlapping one another. A rather traditional, religious and hierarchical nation has become a laboratory field for neoliberalism. The new economic regime pressed for social mobility, relative meritocracy and individualism.
Polish women, trapped as they were between the patriarchal family model and requirements of new economic reality, have elaborated their own fields of viability and freedom. They have fled small towns and villages, favouring bigger cities and leaving their male counterparts behind. They have often resigned of maternity or family life – as shows the extremely low natality rate.
The whole gendered division of productive work and reproductive labour has become distorted and imbalanced. This may be the most pertinent explanation of Poland’s recent leaning towards populism and conservatism. We know from the history that after big structural changes in economy and social relations, for example, in consequence of the industrial revolution or the enfranchisement due to the French Revolution, the people can become frantic in search for guidelines for their everyday lives. The backlash we are witnessing, which is particularly acute in Poland, can be explained also by the present disorientation as to how to live, how to live well, how to be happy and find one’s place in the society where old patterns no longer work and new ones are not yet clear to be seen.
However, the Polish women, especially young women, who took upon themselves the double burden of transformation, have already invented their ways to cope and thrive. Should the state and family structures be obsolete and inadequate, the Polish women find their own solutions to deal with adverse realities. Those are their “real freedoms”, such as the freedom to abort unwanted pregnancy, available albeit costly. And these freedoms are exactly what the Black Protest took out to the streets to defend.