As Poland defies 'European values,' women resist on streets and online

A woman protests a proposed abortion ban in Warsaw, Poland, on April 14.

(CNN)Marta Gorczynska got in her car and started driving.

She didn't have a destination as she passed through Warsaw's mostly deserted streets, but, just before noon last Tuesday, she got a text with directions: go to Rondo Dmowskiego.
Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer, was among a throng of protesters that used their vehicles to defy Poland's lockdown and block the main roundabout in the capital, honking their horns and shouting slogans against a citizen's bill to tighten what are already some of the most restrictive abortion laws anywhere in Europe.
    Some were holding black umbrellas -- a symbol of Poland's abortion rights movement -- while others had "Women's Strike" posters taped to their windows. Demonstrators dressed head-to-toe in black, and wearing face masks, circled on bicycles. Police shouted over megaphones, warning that assemblies were illegal during the pandemic and urging the women to go home.
      As governments across Europe continued to grapple with the worst health care crisis of the modern era, Polish lawmakers debated draft legislation last week that would ban abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities -- one of the few remaining circumstances in which the procedure is still allowed in the majority Catholic country.
      Ultimately, Poland's lower house voted to send the bill to a parliamentary commission for more work. But the timing, which was slammed by human rights campaigners, presented a fresh challenge for women's rights activists who have been fending off an abortion ban for years: how to protest in the time of coronavirus.
      Women protest from their cars with umbrellas, a symbol of the abortion rights movement.
      "We saw this as an attempt by the government to use the lockdown to push for this controversial law, because, as history shows, all these attempts of the government to amend the abortion law have always triggered a lot of demonstrations," Gorczynska said, referring to a nationwide "Black Monday" strike in 2016 that drew millions.
        "If there was no lockdown, thousands of women would have been on the streets. So we were using other tools, especially online ones."
        Those who couldn't come out found other ways of demonstrating. Protesters rallied around hashtags like "black protests" and "women's hell" on social media, sharing photos of themselves in black and white or holding abortion pills in their palms. Others hung posters from their balconies or went out for their daily exercise with messages of resistance taped to their backs.
        But the abortion bill is part of a wider problem, according to campaigners and academics who say that Poland's ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) is using the pandemic to continue chipping away at democracy and tightening its grip on power.
        "What's happening now is the next stage in the destruction of our new democratic state," Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University, told CNN. She pointed to 11th hour changes to how Poland votes and proposals to extend the length of presidential terms as worrying signs of what's ahead.
        The government is still planning to hold a presidential election on May 10, though a majority of Poles -- not to mention opposition politicians -- want to postpone it because of the outbreak.
        On March 28, the PiS rammed a bill through the lower house that would allow the election to go ahead by postal ballot, even though the country's top court previously ruled that no changes can be made to the electoral code within six months of the vote. The bill has now moved to the senate for debate.
        CNN has made several attempts to reach out to the PiS and the government for comment.
        Materska-Sosnowska fears that changes to the electoral process would put the integrity of the vote at risk. While opposition candidates have had very limited opportunities to campaign, President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the PiS, has unfettered access to airtime and is ahead in the polls.
        Protesters wave flags and hold posters emblazoned with a red lightning bolt.