This week saw a massive mobilization of women in Poland (and elsewhere) against a proposed total abortion ban in the country. On Monday, women refused en masse to go to work or school, striking both economically and socially, in order to stop the proposal, which would have refused abortion to women even in cases of rape, incest, and threats to their life.
By the following day, the conservative government had seemingly done a total about-face, announcing that it was withdrawing its support for the measure (the bill later failed in parliament) and solemnly declaring that it had been “humbled” and “taught to think.”
Seems like a victory, right?
In its coverage of the government’s reversal, the Guardian noted the following shocking fact:
Poland already outlaws abortions, with exceptions made only for rape, incest, badly damaged foetuses or if the mother’s life is at risk. In practice, though, some doctors refuse to perform even legal abortions, citing moral objections.
In other words, women in Poland are already unable to access reproductive care, except in the most urgent of circumstances, such as when their very life is at stake… and even then.
Let’s be very clear about a tactic deployed on a regular basis by those in power: They introduce an extremely controversial proposal — something that doesn’t have a chance of passing (although if it does, all the better). An enormous public response is mobilized. They then withdraw the proposal. Exhausted, exhilarated, satisfied, the protesters demobilize their response and return to their everyday lives. The status quo remains.
If I were a member of the Polish conservative government, and I wanted to keep abortion out of the hands of Polish women, I would have done exactly what the government did this week.
This doesn’t mean that the women of Poland didn’t score a victory. They deserve all of the credit for turning back the inhuman proposal of a full ban. However, it does mean that we need to be aware of the difference between strategy and tactics. Tactically, the strike worked. Strategically, the conservative government succeeded in keeping Poland in the dark ages.