The European Union country has been rocked by five days of protests in the wake of a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal last Thursday that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion in a nation which already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
While having a pregnancy terminated is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, when a female’s life is at risk, or if there is a severe foetal abnormality, the court has now ruled abortions, even in cases of foetal defects, are illegal.
Poland's prime minister on Tuesday sought to defend the tightening of the predominantly Catholic country’s abortion law and argued demonstrations should not be going ahead amid heightened coronavirus restrictions.
Mateusz Morawiecki warned that people attending mass protests over abortion rights were disregarding “massive” infection risks as Poland reported 16,300 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, which is a daily record.
Tens of thousands blocked city streets as they drove along in cars or bicycles on Monday - with protesters launching blockades in about 50 cities across Poland. Protesters blocked the main intersections and stopped cars and trams for about an hour in the capital of Warsaw.
Protesters brandished placards which said: “I wish I could abort my government” and “I want choice, not terror”.
“I will be here until the end,” Piotr Wybanski, a 31-year-old who was in one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares, said.
He said he was fighting for his five sisters, mother and grandmother and his fiancee, who was at the demonstration with him.
Justyna, who was 37 but did not want to give her surname, said: “I need to fight for the future of my daughter”.
Hillary Margolis, a women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Independent: “The mass demonstrations that have met the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision – in spite of risks during a pandemic – show how much this decision will impact the lives of everyday women and girls, and that the Polish people will not stand for their human rights being violated and their lives and health being put at risk.
“Under Law and Justice, the government has launched sustained attacks on women’s rights, including reproductive rights, that deliberately use misinformation in an attempt to control women and girls and reinforce traditional gender roles.
“Such backwards moves violate fundamental EU values – and the Polish people are now showing that these rollbacks are not in line with their vision for Poland’s present and future.”
More protests are planned during the week. Scuffles erupted between protesters and far-right groups who broke through a police cordon separating them in front of a church in Warsaw, prompting the police to use pepper spray. In the city of Wroclaw, abortion rights activists used flares.
The court ruling last Thursday fuelled an unprecedented backlash against the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which is seen as having close links with the ultra-conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government.
It has also heightened criticism of PiS, which came to power five years ago on a promise to instil more traditional values. The ruling party is founded on a socially conservative, Catholic ideology and has waged a war on female reproductive rights.
Crowds gathered again near the house of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in an affluent Warsaw neighbourhood, as police in vans with flashing lights kept them away and a helicopter hovered overhead.
While protesters interrupted church services on Sunday as they sprayed graffiti on the walls of churches in Warsaw.
Andrzej Duda, the Polish president who is backed by the Law and Justice Party, narrowly beat the liberal Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, to win a second five-year term in a fierce election in July.
Campaigners have raised serious concerns that Mr Duda’s win could reinvigorate existing attacks on women’s rights and LGBT+ rights in Poland. Mr Duda promised to outlaw same-sex marriage and LGBT+ adoption rights during his recent election campaign.
Additional reporting by agencies