The Polish government says there were 24,000 protesters on Warsaw’s streets last Monday; the protest organisers say there were 116,000. Whatever the number, the ‘Black Monday’ demonstrations in support of abortion rights were an uncommon display. The protesters, most of them women, were on strike from work, school, housework and their children to oppose a law that would have banned all abortions in Poland, and imposed jail sentences of up to five years for both doctors and patients. The protesters wore black and held signs showing diagrams of uteruses. Schools, universities and government offices were forced to close in at least sixty cities, and sympathetic employers gave their workers the day off to participate. In the capital, where it was raining, they bumped umbrellas and chanted: ‘We want doctors, not missionaries.’

Poland already has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Access to abortion was restricted after the fall of the Communist government in 1989. In 1993, it was banned except in cases of rape, threat to a woman’s life or severe foetal abnormality. Today, several hundred legal abortions are performed in Poland each year, but there are far more illegal procedures – perhaps as many as 120,000. Many doctors refuse to carry out legal abortions for religious or moral reasons. Sometimes the easiest way to get one is to travel to Germany or Slovakia, or to order pills online.

The proposed ban was written by a group called Stop Abortion, and sent to parliament after gaining 450,000 signatures in a public petition backed by the Catholic Church. In Parliament it was supported by the rightwing Law and Justice Party, the first to have a majority in Parliament since 1989. The Church’s influence in Poland has grown exponentially since Law and Justice came to power last autumn, with many MPs now entertaining demands that were once beyond the pale, including an initiative to remove the word ‘gender’ from all public policy documents. The new abortion ban was so vaguely worded that miscarriages could be subject to criminal investigations. Doctors said that if it went into effect, they wouldn’t carry out routine prenatal tests for fear of being jailed if something went wrong.

Abortion is deeply unpopular in Poland, and not all of the protesters last Monday would ask for the law to be any more liberal. One popular slogan was: ‘Unlike a pregnancy, a government can be terminated.’ But the new law seemed extreme even in a conservative country, and many ordinary Poles thought its intention was to make women feel unwelcome in public life more generally. For their part, the Law and Justice Party didn’t seem to think that the protests would go very far. ‘Let them have their fun,’ the foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski said on the radio on the morning of the strike.

Historically, women’s strikes are rare. In 2011, the US Supreme Court dismissed Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, a sex discrimination case brought on behalf of 1.5 million female employees of the chain, on the grounds that the complainants didn’t have standing to sue as a class. The Polish protest was modelled after a 1975 strike in Iceland called the ‘Day Off’, when 90 per cent of the country’s female workforce protested against wage disparities. Within three days of the Polish strike, most of the Law and Justice Party’s leadership had withdrawn support for the abortion legislation. Jarosław Gowin, the education minister, said that the demonstrations ‘caused us to think’. Surviving participants of the 1975 Icelandic protests made a video in support of the Polish women and posted it on Facebook. ‘Jesteśmy z wami,’ they said. ‘We are with you.’