WARSAW/GDYNIA, Poland (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people protested across Poland on Friday in defiance of tight coronavirus restrictions, following Thursday’s ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal that imposes a near-total ban on abortion in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
The court announced that abortions due to foetal defects were unconstitutional, ending the most common of the few legal grounds for abortion, and setting Poland further apart from the European mainstream.
Carrying banners that read, “This is War” and “1.5-metres from my uterus”, thousands gathered near the house of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party leader, in an affluent Warsaw neighbourhood.
For the second night running, a cordon of police clad in riot gear blocked them from reaching his house, using loudspeakers to ask protesters to disperse and respect restrictions on public gathering.
Marchers, most of them wearing masks, played the “Imperial March” from Star Wars as well as Italian partisan song “Bella Ciao” and Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”.
“I was initially scared but I figured, too bad if I catch the coronavirus. I’m scared for my daughter, but I think we don’t have a choice,” said Emilia Gwiazda, 46, who attended protests in Warsaw.
Polish media estimates put the Warsaw protest at 15,000 people, despite restrictions that limit public gathering at 10 in the capital. That number is due to go down to five from Saturday.
Thousands also took to the streets in the cities of Poznan, Wroclaw and Krakow, footage from private broadcaster TVN showed.
“Women are not respected in this country. No one is listening to us,” said Magda, 34, in the northern city of Gdynia.
Attempts by PiS to curb the already very restrictive abortion rules in recent years had ignited a public outcry, forcing the party to roll back legislative proposals.
In Warsaw, the protest spilled across the city late into the evening, with some walking more than 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) from Kaczynski’s house towards government buildings in the centre which was lined with police vans flashing their lights.
More protests were planned for Monday.
From Saturday, more restrictions to curb the spread of the virus are due to come into force, including a two-week shutdown of restaurants and bars, after new coronavirus infections hit a daily record of more than 13,600 on Friday.
Protesters in Warsaw launched flares but the demonstrations were largely peaceful, unlike on Thursday when some threw stones and the police used pepper spray.
PiS lawmakers welcomed the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision but rejected accusations by the opposition that it had influenced it.
Conservative values have taken a more prominent role in public life since PiS took power five years ago, and access to abortion has declined even without legislative curbs as some doctors refused to perform the procedure on religious grounds.
After the tribunal’s decision goes into effect, women will be able to terminate a pregnancy only in the case of rape or incest or a threat to their health.
Zaneta, a 30-year-old woman from a small town in southern Poland who has an extremely rare genetic disorder, terminated a pregnancy on Tuesday after the baby was diagnosed with severe malformations.
The ruling came as a shock to her.
“I had no idea you could do that,” she said. “This ends any chances for me to have another child.”
(Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Anna Koper, writing by Joanna Plucinska and Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Grant McCool)