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Abortion law protests in Poland put civil liberties in the spotlight

"This is essentially a fight for our rights and our lives," lawyer Eliza Rutynowska told NBC News.
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WARSAW, Poland — Some carried placards reading, "I'm afraid to live here." Others sang Aretha Franklin's "Think." But all were determined to express their outrage at Poland's near-total ban on abortions.

For the third night in a row, thousands poured onto the streets of Poland's capital, Warsaw, and other cities across the country Friday to protest against a Constitutional Tribunal ruling on abortion.

The ruling, which became law on Wednesday, makes terminating pregnancies with fetal defects unconstitutional and eliminates the most frequently used legal reason for abortion in the eastern European nation.

Demonstrations, led by rights group Women's Strike, erupted almost immediately after it came into effect.

Image: Protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights, in Warsaw
Demonstrators attend a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday. Aleksandra Szmigiel / Reuters

Among the protesters was Ola Bakowska, 31, who told NBC News by telephone Saturday that she took to the streets Wednesday to "vent her emotions" and "show my disagreement" with the new law.

She added that she had been encouraged by the number of people who had turned out to all the protests.

While abortion was the main focus, climate change activists and members of the LGBTQ communities were among those that took to the streets, amid fears of a wider erosion of civil liberties.

Among them Marek Elas, 36, an environmental activist working with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Poland, said Thursday that the Polish government was "working towards limiting human rights."

He added that the "government thought women were the easiest to hit, which turned out to be untrue."

Bakowska, a project manager, agreed that many of the protesters wanted to express their broader anger at the government, which she said was "targeting many people's rights, and not just women's rights" with its "traditional but outdated values."

The LGBTQ communities were among those suffering, she said. "It's like they're invisible," she added.

Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, aka PiS, promised a return to more conservative social norms before it came to power in 2015. Abortion has since become a highly divisive issue in the predominantly Catholic country.

It supported the abortion law ruling in October, which was also followed by nationwide protests.

Under the new rules, abortion can be performed only in the case of rape or incest or when the mother's health or life is at risk, putting Poland outside the European mainstream. Doctors defying the law could face jail time.

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Krzysztof Sobolewski, a senior PiS official, told the state PAP news agency Saturday that the protests were illegal and defied social distancing rules in place to curb the coronavirus pandemic, as 14 arrests were made across the country Thursday and more on Friday night.

Lawyer Eliza Rutynowska told NBC News on Friday that some protesters had been detained in police stations as far as 25 miles outside of the city. NBC News could not independently verify this.

Many of her clients, for whom she was acting on a pro-bono basis, had told her they were angry "at how disregarded human rights are in Poland today," she said.

"It may seem that Poland is moving to the right, but on the inside, we are seeing a strong move for freedom," she added. "This is essentially a fight for our rights and our lives."

Image: Poland protest
The symbol for Women's Strike is seen near police during a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday. Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Reproductive and human rights groups have condemned the restrictive abortion law and warned of a broader erosion of civil liberties and rightward lurch by the government.

"This move is an outrageous violation of authorities' basic duty to protect the life and health of their citizens," said Irene Donadio of the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network.

But for Beata Jedynak, 60, who supports the government, watching the protests has left her feeling "devastated and disgusted," she told NBC News.

"I just don't know what this fight is about, whether to overthrow the government or to introduce entirely leftist views," she said.

But Bakowska said they were "not giving up," adding, "We will continue to protest."

Liza Galica reported from Warsaw and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.