“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York,” the well-known opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In Poland, the summer has ended and absent a son of York, the stage seems set for a winter of discontent. In office for just under a year, the Law and Justice (PiS) government, the first to achieve a parliamentary majority, has failed to turn “our dreadful marches to delightful measures” but rather the opposite as what PiS’s opponents and critics consider dreadful measures give rise to delightful marches.
Thus Saturday saw thousands of doctors, nurses, and hospital workers march through central Warsaw demanding that the government spend more money on public health. After all, a salary of PLN 2,200 for a young doctor is scant reward for six years plus of study. To be fair, the problem of low pay in the Polish health service has been continuing for years and is not a PiS engineered crisis as Health Minister Konstanty Radziwill, speaking at the demonstration pointed out, blaming the previous government for problems of the medical sector and promising to raise spending on health each year.
The demonstrators said that to earn a decent salary many doctors work up to 80 hours per week, which long hours lead to exhaustion and pose a health risk to staff and patients. They demand that the Polish government immediately increase health spending to 6.8 per cent of GDP, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, compared to the 4.5 per cent of GDP currently spent. This demand was dismissed by Radziwiłł at a meeting with labour unions yesterday as “completely unrealistic”. The government plans to gradually increase healthcare spending starting from 2018 and raise it to 6 percent of GDP by 2025. Disappointed by the lack of any proposals, the unions would like to meet Prime Minister Szydło and Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of the PiS party.
But the greatest discontent seems to have been begotten of the proposed legislation to ban abortions in Poland. On Friday the lower house of the Polish parliament (Sejm) voted at first reading not to reject a draft bill that would ban abortion, even in case of rape, incest, and severely ill foetuses, as well as imprisonment for women who willingly terminate pregnancy. The bill was proposed by the pro-life “Stop Abortion” group, backed by some 450,000 signatures. Deputies did, however, reject the “Save Women” committee’s proposal which was backed by over 215,000 signature. This allowed women to terminate pregnancy on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
Poland currently has a very restrictive abortion law. Dating from 1993, the law bans termination unless there was rape or incest, the foetus is severely deformed or the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s health. According to a recent poll by TNS Polska, 42 per cent of respondents do not want the current law to change, 25 per cent favour some liberalization and 14 per cent favour a stricter law.
In addition to the modest demonstration outside the Sejm during the debate and last week’s black protest, where black clothing was donned to show opposition to the banning of abortion, a larger demonstration outside the Sejm is planned for Saturday, notable for bringing together KOD (the Committee for the defence of Democracy) and opposition parties Platforma Obywatelska, Nowoczesna and Razem, coordinated by Inicjatywy Polskiej and Komitetu Ratujmy Kobiety, under the slogan “The Joke’s Over”. And, with even greater potential to make the point, a general strike of women has been proposed for Monday.
Do demonstrations make any difference? Perhaps. For the health workers the problem is that the state budget is already under strain and the government has little room for manoeuvre, however well-merited the case for salary increases is. Be that as it may, without some action Poland risks a health service which will face an increasing shortage of professionals as they seek better paid positions elsewhere.
On the abortion front, there is perhaps more likelihood of success. This is a battle the government does not really need, the bill is not a government initiative and the prime minister has previously said (please see Abortion) she would not insist all PiS deputies vote in favour. And while one might sincerely hold the view that abortion is evil, and reflect on the moral inconsistency of protecting the lives of convicted murderers from capital punishment while holding a more cavalier attitude to the protection of new life, it is no less an evil to deny a woman compassion and help in a moment of great personal crisis. Against this, for PiS few things are jokes, and nothing is ever over, so anything is possible. Only with effective opposition will folk be able to say, “Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.”