Huge crowds turned out to protest in the Polish capital, Warsaw, on Friday against a court decision to ban nearly all abortions, making it one of the largest demonstrations seen in the country in decades.
Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said more than 100,000 people were in attendance, while protest organizers put the figure at 150,000.
Police detained 37 people Friday evening, the vast majority of whom were football hooligans, Sylwester Marczak, spokesman for the Warsaw Police headquarters, said Saturday morning. Taking into account the huge number of participants, it was a “very peaceful” protest, he added.
Demonstrations of this scale were last seen in the Solidarity movement of the 1980s in Poland which led to the collapse of the government, analysts say.
The protest in Warsaw was the culmination of nine days of nationwide protests since a court ruling on October 22 deemed abortion due to fetal defects to be unconstitutional. This meant abortion in Poland would only be legal in two scenarios — if the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life and health, or if a woman became pregnant following rape or incest.
Demonstrators also turned out in Gdańsk, Białystok, Poznan, Kraków, Wroclaw, Torun, Sczescin, Myślenice, Gorlice and Jasło on Friday.
According to local media, 430,000 people attended more than 400 demonstrations across the country against the ban on Wednesday. Online supporters are using the tag #ThisIsWar to show solidarity with those marching.
The protests have been taking place in defiance of a ban on gatherings of more than five people due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aerial footage of the demonstration in Warsaw posted to social media showed the vast scale of the turnout there on Friday evening.
Protest organizers urged protesters to make their way towards the residence of Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party Leader (PiS) who is widely seen as the de facto decision maker in Poland. The demonstration ended there at around 11 p.m. local time and organizers urged protesters to make their way home safely.
Kaczyński on Wednesday called the protesters “criminals” and said people taking part in mass gatherings were endangering people’s lives given the surge in coronavirus cases in Poland.
In an apparent softening of his stance, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Friday submitted a draft amendment to the controversial law which would legalize abortion in situations where the baby has “lethal defects” and would die soon after birth.
The amendment would mean abortion would remain legal in an event where “prenatal tests or other medical indications indicate a high probability that the child will be born still or burdened with an incurable disease or defect that will lead to the death of the child inevitably and directly,” according to a statement from Duda on Friday.
“It is an extremely delicate and painful situation for every mother, for every parent. In the case of lethal defects, the death of the child is inevitable. The protection of his life is therefore beyond human power,” the statement also said.
Duda had earlier clarified his stance on abortion in such cases in an interview with Polish radio station RMF FM. “You must clearly ask yourself whether anyone has the right to demand, or the law may require such a woman to… bear such a child in her womb and then bear the entire physical cost of birth,” Duda said.
Duda added that he did not think abortion should be legal in situations where a child has Down syndrome, for example, and the life of the unborn child is not at risk.
The ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal removed one of the few remaining grounds for legal termination in the country, which already had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.
Abortions due to fetal defects comprised approximately 98% of all legal abortions carried out in Poland in 2019, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health.
Asked about the ongoing protests across Poland over the controversial court ruling, Duda condemned the demonstrators who disrupted church services earlier this week.
“If we are talking about acts of physical or verbal aggression, if we are talking about invading churches, if we are talking about insulting religious feelings, profaning places of worship, I am sorry, but the boundaries are definitely exceeded here,” he said.
Abortion rights protest leaders have accused the populist PiS party of pushing the court to tighten abortion restrictions in order to please the party’s base, and the Church. Church leaders have denied influencing the change in law.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Friday urged protesters not to go out on the streets as he announced further steps to try to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“I understand your anger, but I urge you to stay at home, especially for the sake of seniors,” he said.
The measures include closing cemeteries for three days, urging business owners to allow employees to work from home and urging older citizens to remain at home.
Health Minister Adam Niedzielski told Polish news channel TVN24 on Friday that he looked with “great concern” at the protests and urged people to isolate themselves from those taking part, saying they could be more exposed to Covid-19.
On Friday, Poland recorded 21,629 new coronavirus cases, marking another record high in the country, where case counts have tripled in less than a month. A further 202 deaths were also reported by the Polish Health Ministry, with the total number of confirmed infections in the country surpassing 340,000.