WARSAW, Poland - Poland's government struggled Tuesday to deal with the fallout from massive street protests by women furious at a legislative proposal to impose a total ban on abortion — and gave signals that it would withhold its support from the deeply divisive measure.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski denounced the protests — which involved tens if not hundreds of thousands across the nation — as "marginal" and "a mockery of important issues."
But when that triggered outrage among female opposition lawmakers, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo attempted to calm the waters, saying she did not approve of Waszczykowski's comments and that her government is not actively engaged in an attempt to further restrict the current law, which is already one of the most restrictive in Europe.
"I want to say it very loudly and clearly: the government of Law and Justice (party) was not working and is not working on any law that would change the currently binding regulations," she said.
An anti-abortion initiative recently gathered 450,000 signatures in support of the total abortion ban, triggering a vote in parliament in which lawmakers decided to consider it as the basis of new legislation. A parliamentary commission is now analyzing it.
It was never the proposal of the ruling Law and Justice party, though some of the party's members support it. It is also supported by the powerful Catholic church, which played a crucial role in the party's rise to power last year.
On Monday, large numbers of women across Poland wore black and turned out in the streets for rallies to protest the proposal on what they called "Black Monday." Many also held a strike, not showing up to work or to high school or university classes. The huge participation surprised many in a country where the feminist movement has traditionally been very weak.
The European Union's parliament also plans to hold a debate on Wednesday on the situation of women in Poland in light of the efforts to totally ban abortion, which includes calls for prison terms of up to five years for a woman who seeks an abortion or the doctor.
It was not immediately clear if the proposal will now just die in the parliamentary commission stage, or whether it might still move forward in parliament, where some lawmakers support it.
Bills can be sent to parliament by the government, the president, by public initiatives or be written directly by the lawmakers themselves, and lawmakers would have the right to continue to consider the proposal. However, lack of government backing would certainly weaken its chances.
Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, passed in 1993, with abortion allowed only in cases of rape or incest, if the fetus is badly damaged or if the woman's life in at risk. As it is now, there are only a few hundred legal abortions in Poland each year, though many more women travel to terminate pregnancies abroad or order abortion pills online. Some doctors, citing their consciences, already refuse to perform abortions in cases that would now be legal, for instance when the fetus has Down Syndrome.
Agnieszka Graff, a prominent Polish feminist commentator and professor at Warsaw University, said that anti-abortion groups have over the years repeatedly made efforts to get abortion completely banned through petitions or other initiatives.
"This difference this time is that there is a government that owes them. But this is not a popular measure," she said.
"The Christian fundamentalists are part of the electorate of Law and Justice, so they cannot completely ignore them," she added.
Graff argued that attempts to impose a total ban will not only backfire but have the opposite effect of building greater support for abortion rights in Poland. She said the massive gathering by young Polish women on Monday, followed by similar streets protests on Saturday, was unprecedented.
"Nothing like this has every happened in Poland," Graff said. "This is what we — the feminist movement — have been dreaming of for 20 years."