If the Polish government had got its way, the country would have had some of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the world. There was just one problem: most people didn’t agree with it. This week, millions of Poles, mainly women, took to the streets in protest against the measures, bringing the country to a standstill.

Women in Warsaw protest against plans for a total ban on abortion
Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Poland already has some of the strictest abortion regulations in Europe, but the new laws would have made abortion illegal in all circumstances – even if the pregnancy was a result of rape or if the mother’s life was at risk. Women looking to access abortions and doctors offering to perform them would have faced prison sentences of up to five years.

Now the plans lie in tatters, after a day of country-wide protests led to the closure of government offices, schools and universities. As many as 6 million women – in a population of just under 40 million people – took to the streets dressed in black to oppose the measures.

“They are violating our civic rights, and I wanted to support all the women who may be hurt,” a 41-year-old protestor told Reuters.

Poland’s decision-makers heard the message loud and clear, and have since backed away from the proposals.

“I want to state very clearly that the government is not working on any legislation changing the rules on abortion in Poland,” the country’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, explained in a news conference after the day of protests.

The proposed measures were universally condemned by civil liberties organizations, including Planned Parenthood Global and Amnesty International.

“These proposals are an all-out assault on women and girls, and their right to make decisions about their own bodies,” Kasia Staszewska of Amnesty International said in a statement.

Earlier on in the year, a UN Panel condemned Ireland’s abortions laws – which are similar to those that were being proposed in Poland – as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”, and urged them to change them.