A Polish woman watches from her Bucharest apartment the fight for control over women’s rights and bodies in Poland, and decides to get involved.
On a chilly Monday evening at the beginning of October, about 80 women and men wearing black clothes gathered in Bucharest to protest about a law that would completely ban abortions in Poland. Most of them were Romanians. Poland is almost 1,500 km away from Romania, but the issue of abortion is still an open wound in Romania. The decree 770, issued in Romania in 1966, led to the deaths of 9,500 women between 1966 and 1989, and left a collective trauma.
Some Polish women took part in the protest too. One of them was Karolina Memon, a woman in her 30s with silvery blond, short hair, moving around energetic. Karolina had moved to Bucharest with her husband for his work, and was pregnant in the seventh month. She had come up with the idea to organise the protest, and was expecting to gather up to ten Polish women. But then the event simply exploded, and more than 1,000 people announced on Facebook that they would attend it.
One day before the protest, Karolina wrote a Facebook post saying that she didn’t get a protest permit, simply because she wasn’t expecting so many people. On Monday afternoon, people met in Piata Romana, in downtown Bucharest, and started walking to the Universitatii Square.
The Black Monday
On the same day, thousands of women in Poland went on strike to protest against the law that would introduce a total ban on abortions. The protest, called the Black Monday, was inspired by a women’s strike in Iceland in 1975. On October 24, 1975, most of the women in Iceland refused to carry out any activity, including working, cooking, taking care of the kids. It was a way to make society acknowledge the women’s role, and it became a turning point for Iceland. Five years after the protests, Vigdis Finnbogadottir won Iceland’s presidency. She was Europe’s first female president.
In Poland, abortions are currently banned in most situations except for three cases, namely when the woman’s life is in danger, when there is risk of serious and irreversible damage to the foetus and when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incent. This new draft law, which triggered the Black Monday protests, aimed to ban abortion under all circumstances, except when a woman’s life is in danger. The bill was supported by the Catholic Church and several politicians.
Women marched on the streets of Warsaw and other Polish cities holding banners that read “Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights”, “My body my choice”, “Free choice for all women”.
In Bucharest, the protesters peacefully marched to the University Square. In front of the National Theatre Bucharest, a group of women carried out a performance with their hands tight and eyes covered. Some of the protesters then headed to a cafe called Macaz, where they talked about the new law. There were also discussions about Romania’s not-so-distant past. Women and men had banners that read “Romania supports #BlackProtest. We remember ‘Decree 770’” or “Solidarity with Polish women”.
Karolina, who was wearing a black dress and a beige jersey, listened to the stories of the Romanian women. She noticed that almost everybody knew somebody who had an abortion. She didn’t.
“Is it because there are no people who have abortions in Poland? No. People keep it hidden because it’s illegal,” Karolina said.
She added: “In Poland nobody can force you to give your kidney away, to donate your blood, to give a piece of your liver away, although it’s clear that people die because of the lack of it. Why aren’t we doing it? Because it’s illegal to force you to do something with your own body even if people die if you don’t do this. How come this doesn’t refer to women?”
As some of the women and men gathered at Macaz started talking, Karolina began to understand why so many Romanians had shown up at the protest.
Almost two million children were born in Romania between 1966 and 1989. They were nicknamed decreteii, from the Decree 770. Not only were abortions illegal during that period, but contraception options were not at hand, and sexual education was missing. Many of the pregnancies could not be avoided, and mothers would give birth to children they sometimes didn’t want. The mothers’ traumas were sometimes passed on to their children.
“It was a trauma for the mother, but do you really want to hear that you were unwanted? What does this do to your self-esteem?” Karolina says.
The decree 770 was the result of a pronatalist policy. In 1966, Romania was one of the least developed agrarian countries in Europe, with 30 newborns per thousand inhabitants and with a long tradition in banning abortions.
In 1948 the Romanian Government banned abortion, but legalized it in 1957, following the Soviet model. A study by the sociologists Adriana Baban and Henry David from 1994 shows that the number of abortions in Romania doubled between 1959 and 1965. About 80% of the pregnancies were interrupted.
The Socialist Republic of Romania passed the Decree 770 on October 1, 1966. Abortions were banned with some exceptions, namely when the pregnancy threatened the woman’s life, when one of the parents had a serious disease that could be transmitted hereditary, when the woman was over 45, when the woman showed serious physical, mental or sensory disabilities, when the woman had already given birth to four children, who were in her care, and when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
When the Communist rule fell in Romania, the decree was abolished: it was December 26, 1989, the first day of the first Government after the Revolution.
Anti-abortion voices are currently weak in Romania, but there have been a few attempts in the last years. For example, in 2012 Romanian MPs Sulfina Barbu and Marius Dugulescu submitted a draft law on setting up counseling offices for ‘pregnancy crises’. In 2013 a local NGO backed by the Orthodox Church, in partnership with the Education Inspectorate, organised a series of presentations on the topic of abortion for young girls in the high schools of Salaj, a county in the north-west of Romania. Girls were told that abortion can lead to infertility.
Back to the beginning
After the Black Monday Protests, the Polish Parliament voted on October 6 against the law that would completely ban abortions. MPs rejected the bill by 352 votes to 58.
Unhappy with the results, the archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, chairman of the Polish bishops’ bioethics committee, said: “This draft bill may have needed some corrections, but it was prepared solidly enough. Its rejection leaves us in the same situation as before.”
He added: “Human life has such great value. It shouldn’t be the object of political bargains.”
Polish MP Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is the founder and leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, overshadowing Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and President Andrzej Duda, said that the bill was rejected on October 6 due to “a gigantic misunderstanding,” and added that his party would also continue defending life “in a more thought-out way.”
Karolina Memon was watching how things evolved in Poland from her apartment in Bucharest. She knew that the things were not over.
On November 4, Poland’s Parliament passed a new law entitled “For Life” (“Za Życiem”) targeting the so-called “difficult pregnancies”.
The government offers PLN 4000 (EUR 1000) for carrying to term a pregnancy with a permanently damaged or terminally ill foetus and ensures access to hospices and medical care.
The argument was, Karolina explains, that it’s better to let a woman deliver and let the baby die, because the baby can thus be baptized and buried.
“But do you know what this means? It’s not like somebody puts an earring for nine months and then it just takes it out. The baby moves for nine months. Your hormones are changing. Your whole body is changing. She’s (the mother) absolutely left in mourning,” Karolina says.
She believes that abortion is never an ideal situation, because women don’t simply abort, but there’s always reason behind it. But in the end, it should be the right of every woman to have full control of her body.
Debating whether a woman should have control over her own body is per se absurd, she adds. “It’s like we are discussing whether we should give free medical care to people, or whether they should have the right to breakfast before 12 o’clock.”
“I wonder how many of these pro-life people have ever adopted a child,” she adds. “How many would adopt a sick child, protecting life the moment the life is actually starting?”
By Diana Mesesan, features writer, [email protected]