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Polish Women Continue Protesting A Court Decision To Outlaw Nearly All Abortions

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Protesters in cities throughout Poland have been on the streets for nearly three weeks criticizing the government's tightening of an already strict abortion law. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, the right-wing Polish government is showing signs of wavering.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Polish).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: They are the largest demonstrations Poland has seen since the fall of communism more than 30 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of women across the country have defied a coronavirus ban on gatherings as well as the threat of prosecution to protest a court decision aiming to outlaw nearly all abortions.

MARA CLARKE: Poland had the fourth-worst abortion law in Europe, and they decided that wasn't bad enough for their women.

SCHMITZ: Mara Clarke founded the London-based Abortion Support Network.

CLARKE: So what they did is there was a tribunal court that decided that abortion in case of catastrophic fetal indication would no longer be legal.

SCHMITZ: Under the already tight restrictions in Poland, nearly all of the country's 1,000 or so abortions fall under this category, which describes a fetus suffering severe life-threatening abnormalities. And it leaves only two legal reasons for an abortion - threats to the mother's life or if the woman has been raped.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAROSLAW KACZYNSKI: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: In an address after the ban was announced, ruling Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski defended it, casting those protesting the ban as enemies of the country. And there are wide sections of this almost exclusively Catholic country who support their church's teaching that abortion is equal to murder. Under pressure from protests, the government has postponed implementing the court ruling, but activists suspect this is just a delay tactic.

Hillary Margolis, senior researcher on women's rights at Human Rights Watch, says the new law is just the latest assault on civil rights from Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party.

HILLARY MARGOLIS: It calls itself pro-family, but really what it is, is anti-women's rights and anti-LGBT people. And it's using the idea of rights and the idea of family to undermine maliciously the actual human rights of significant groups of people throughout the country.

SCHMITZ: During its five-year rule, the Law and Justice Party has reduced the independence of the judiciary and has cracked down on the free press. It's also targeted protest organizers.

MARTA LEMPART: Yes, I can hear you guys. Can you hear me?

SCHMITZ: Marta Lempart leads the movement called Strajk Kobiet, a women's strike that has organized the nationwide protests. She's being harassed with constant calls and visits to her home and is about to change her phone number when I finally reach her.

LEMPART: Because my name was - address was published, and my phone number was published. So there's the whole hate fest (ph) of people texting me and calling me and also basically threatening me. So it's impossible to actually use the phone now. I will have a different number just couple hours.

SCHMITZ: She says Poland's national prosecutor is also after her. And the protest movement she's leading is no longer about abortion. It's about the government stepping down.

LEMPART: Because this is the classical situation when you can see why judicial independence is important and why the rule of law is important and why we've been betrayed by international institutions that did not react enough to the rule of law being - collapsing in Poland for so many years.

SCHMITZ: She says a judiciary that's been corrupted by the ruling party is being used as a tool to bring down basic human rights. And she thinks it's just the beginning.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.