WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Women’s rights activists and thousands of their supporters held a fifth day of protests across Poland Monday, despite pandemic restrictions, after a top court tightened the predominantly Catholic nation’s already strict abortion law.
In Warsaw, demonstrators with drums, horns and firecrackers were blocking rush-hour traffic at a number of major roundabouts. Similar protests were held in other cities such as Poznan, Lodz and Katowice.
Protesters are defying a “red zone” ban on public gatherings intended to halt a spike in new coronavirus infections in Poland.
Angry street protests began after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled Thursday that it was unconstitutional to terminate a pregnancy due to fetal congenital defects, effectively banning almost all abortions.
READ MORE: Poland’s top court rules out abortions due to fetal defects
The head of a doctors’ group, Dr. Andrzej Matyja, speaking on Radio Zet, criticized the ruling’s timing during the pandemic, saying it amounted to an “irresponsible provoking of people to rallies” where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Poland’s leaders have also come under criticism from professors at the reputed Jagiellonian University — the country’s oldest — who said that announcing such a ruling during a pandemic was an “extreme proof of a lack of responsibility for people’s lives.”
In a letter to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and to President Andrzej Duda, who is infected with the coronavirus, they appealed for a “way out of the situation … to be urgently found.”
Many gynecologists have also criticized the ruling. Maciej Jedrzejko argued that the ban will result in a rise in the number of dangerous, illegal abortions. He said sex education and access to contraceptives are the best way to limit the number of abortions.
The ruling by the government-controlled court overturned a hard-won compromise on the 1993 law that even then was one of Europe’s strictest abortion regulations.
After the ruling, abortion is allowed in Poland only when the pregnancy threatens the woman’s health or is the result of rape or incest.
European Parliament lawmaker for the conservative ruling team, Patryk Jaki, who is the father of a child with Down Syndrome, tweeted to say that abortions can also eliminate healthy children “because you rarely are 100% sure.”
Jaki also argued that abortions contributed to the nation’s negative birthrate which could be a “threat to Poland’s state.”
READ MORE: Millions of women lose access to contraceptives, abortions amid COVID-19
Health Ministry figures show that 1,110 legal abortions were carried out in Poland in 2019, mostly because of fetal defects. The non-government Federation For Women and Family Planning estimates the number of illegal abortions at between 100,000 -150,000 a year.
According to the Women’s Strike group, protesters in almost 50 cities and towns plan to block downtown traffic later Monday with cars, bikes, or by just walking.
The group says that forcing women to carry through pregnancies involving fetuses with severe defects will result in their unnecessary physical and mental suffering.
Group leader Marta Lempart said there will also be a strike Wednesday and a protest march Friday in Warsaw, the seat of the government, the constitutional court and the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party behind the court’s decision.
On Sunday, protests against the new abortion law were held in and around churches in Poland.