On October 30, more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the Polish capital, Warsaw, to demonstrate against a court ruling that could pave the way for a near-total ban on abortion in a country that already has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. While the rally – the largest in Poland’s recent history – was overwhelmingly peaceful, the demonstrators faced attacks by bands of far-right activists who attempted to halt their march by force.
Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled on October 22 that an existing law allowing the abortion of damaged foetuses was “incompatible” with the constitution, rejecting the most common of the few legal grounds for pregnancy termination in the predominantly Catholic country. Once published in the official journal, the constitutional court ruling would result in the banning of all abortions except in cases of rape and incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger.
Feminist and far-right activists around the world are watching the drama unfolding in Poland closely because this is not only a Polish story. The Eastern European country is just the latest hotspot in a global war against women’s rights.
Those working to halt Polish women’s access to safe and legal abortions, for example, include one of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow.
What business does the outgoing American president’s lawyer have with Polish women’s wombs?
Sekulow – who defended Trump during his impeachment trial and is now leading his administration’s efforts to invalidate Joe Biden’s election victory in US courts – is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an ultra-conservative group that has spent tens of millions of dollars fuelling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTIQ people across the globe. Last month, openDemocracy, the organisation we work for, revealed the “staggering” scale of such spending for the first time.
Since 2007, dozens of Christian-right groups based in the US have spent at least $280m in “dark money” around the world. These groups operate in secrecy – they do not reveal who their donors are, or disclose details of how exactly they spend their money overseas. Sekulow’s group has spent more money in Europe than anywhere else outside the US. In Poland, just days before the announcement of the controversial ruling, ACLJ submitted legal arguments to the constitutional court in favour of banning abortions in cases of fatal foetal anomalies.
Monika, a Polish woman who had an abortion in February after the foetus she had been carrying was diagnosed with a fatal anomaly, told us that if the constitutional court’s ruling came just a few months earlier, she “would have been in a tragic situation”.
“Access to abortion in cases like mine is a matter of women’s mental and physical health,” she said. Monika fears that the “terrible consequences” of the court’s ruling will include “broken hearts of mothers who are forced to continue such pregnancies and watch their children die”.
Efforts by Polish women’s rights activists and their international allies to resist the implementation of the court’s ruling already achieved some results. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said he believes women should have a right to abortion in case of congenitally damaged foetuses. And the country’s right-wing government decided to delay the implementation of the constitutional court ruling, saying “it would be good to take some time for dialogue” – although some hospitals have already started to turn away women seeking abortions.
Meanwhile, the European office of Sekulow’s group praised the “historic decision”. Another US-based Christian-right group with links to the Trump administration, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), sent a newsletter to its followers saying the Polish ruling gave it “reason to celebrate”. ADF staffers have held important positions in the US government during the Trump presidency, and its CEO Michael Farris attended an invitation-only White House event where Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee.
Trump’s allies in the Christian-right have been funding attacks on women’s rights around the world for years. Together, the ACLJ and ADF have spent at least $30m in Europe since 2007 and have intervened in at least 50 European court cases.
These activities predate Trump’s presidency and there is every reason to expect that they will outlast his time in the White House. The global infrastructure these groups have built includes brick-and-glass offices and troops of lobbyists, neither of which will disappear overnight.
These groups are fighting to ensure societies around the globe are structured on rigid patriarchal lines, and the victories of generations of feminist movements are rolled back. In addition to opposing abortion rights, these groups have also spent time and money challenging Europeans’ access to contraception and divorce.
They are fighting to stop European courts from issuing progressive rulings on these issues because they fear such decisions could eventually inspire courts back home to do the same. ADF lawyers have said that they’re working to ensure “that bad European precedents don’t spread further in Europe, then across the sea to America”. Sekulow’s group’s submission to the Polish court was partly copy-and-pasted from a previous anti-abortion filing that it made to a United Nations human rights working group in 2017. It has also intervened in a related Poland abortion case at the European Court of Human Rights.
This is what the global war against women’s rights looks like in the 21st century: it is relentless, and is being waged by groups who have strong political connections and deep pockets full of dark money.
On the eve of the US election, you’d think that Trump’s allies would have been too busy to meddle with Polish women’s bodily autonomy. But these Christian fundamentalists have a long-term global agenda that is rarely hindered by the happenings in Washington, DC.
Thus, even after the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, there is no reason to expect Trump’s Christian-fundamentalist allies to halt their destructive actions in Europe – this is bad news for women, and for democracy.
Indeed, the success or failure of these groups in Europe does not depend on the decisions American voters make in any given election. It depends on the Europeans. European media must investigate these movements with the same rigour they apply to other threats to democracy. European governments and institutions must pay more attention too. The events in Poland show what is at stake for all of Europe, and beyond.
Front-line activists in Poland were aware of the looming attack on women’s rights in the country for a long time. This is why they launched a cross-border network called Abortion Without Borders almost a year ago to help Polish women access safe abortion care online or abroad.
They know what Trump’s lawyer does too: that a threat to women in one country is a threat to women everywhere. Confronting these anti-democratic movements wherever they are, and challenging one of their most beloved weapons – secrecy – is essential if we are to defend Europe’s unfinished progress towards universal human rights and gender equality.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.