The last time I saw Agnieszka Guzdek, we weren't quite teenagers. It was summertime in Michigan, and we were sitting on my carpeted bedroom floor, listening to Boyz II Men cassette tapes, eating gummy worms, and playing with the kittens my cat had just birthed. Aga was visiting from Krakow, Poland. I call her my cousin, even though we're not really blood-related. Our mothers were college roommates at Poland's prestigious Jagiellonian University (which is like the Harvard of Poland), and they have been close ever since.
In the 1970s, my mother emigrated from Krakow to the United States. She had her master's degree in physics but didn't speak a word of English, so she worked as a cleaning lady in Chicago before teaching herself the language by watching American soap operas. (Her English now is correspondingly dramatic.) Aga's mother went on to become dean of molecular biology at Jagiellonian and has since retired.
I currently live on a tiny island off the coast of Portland, Maine. Aga lives in Krakow, the second-largest city in Poland. We both have children — mine are under the age of four; Aga's son, Marek, is eighteen. Both Aga and I are working mothers, just like our mothers, and we are raising our children to be feminists, just as our mothers did. That's why when Aga told me that on October 3, she and Marek took to the streets to protest Poland's recently proposed anti-abortion ban, I wasn't surprised. Invigorated, yes. But not surprised. Because if I know anything about Polish women, it's that we are stalwart, we have large heads and big brains, we are peasant-shaped, and we do not take shit from anybody, especially when it comes to our freedom.
Some are calling it the "Coat Hanger Rebellion"; others are calling it "Poland's Black Protests" — Aga and Marek joined tens of thousands of black-clad women, men, and children in a massive show of defiance against Poland's conservative government and all-powerful Catholic Church after a bill was introduced to the parliament that would forbid abortion in almost all circumstances. Under the original proposed law, written by a pro-life group, women in the country of 38 million people who undergo an abortion could also face imprisonment, as could doctors and nurses involved. If this proposed law had passed, Poland — which already bans abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and severe fetal abnormalities, or when the mother's life is at risk — would have had among the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union.
But the protests have already had a dramatic impact. The ruling political party (PiS) that had championed the law has now voted the legislation down. On October 5, the Polish minister of science and higher education said the fervor and size of the protests "caused us to think and taught us humility."
Still: PiS shows no signs of liberalizing the currently draconian abortion laws and reportedly would still like to ban abortions for women whose fetuses have congenital abnormalities. According to the Guardian, activists say that protests will continue. And according to Aga, "I feel that women know that we have won for now, but this war is not over."
I spoke with Aga — who wants to make clear that she is speaking for herself, not for any organization — about these rallies in the motherland, and here's what went down. (And thank you, Aga, not only for your activism, but for staying up so late to talk to me in my time zone ...)
Mira Ptacin: Can you tell me about the situation regarding women's reproductive rights in Poland right now?