WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- Women's rights activists are preparing for what they say will be the largest protest so far in over a week of mass nationwide street demonstrations in Poland triggered by a court ruling banning abortions of congenitally damaged fetuses.
The march is planned for Friday evening in Warsaw, the capital, in defiance of government appeals that people stay home due to skyrocketing coronavirus infections. Poland has hit new records almost daily this week, with over 21,600 new COVID-19 cases in one day reported Friday.
The national public prosecutor has vowed to file criminal charges against organizers of the protests for "causing an epidemiological threat," a charge that could carry a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek also threatened to cut off funds to universities that have supported the protests. Some canceled classes during a nationwide strike on Wednesday. Czarnek said that university presidents "who encourage their students and academic teachers to take part in the demonstrations contribute to increasing the risk of the coronavirus pandemic."
The news portal Onet reported Friday that Warsaw's district court was preparing to handle a large number of cases.
The past week of social upheaval followed a ruling last week by the constitutional court, which ruled that abortion in the cases of severe fetal deformities is unconstitutional.
Poland already had one of Europe's most restrictive laws, which was forged in 1993 between the political and Catholic church leaders of the time. It allowed abortion only in the cases of fetal defects, risk to the woman's health and crimes -- incest or rape.
The law has been often described as a "compromise" between those seeking liberal abortion regulations and the church, which favors a total ban. However, no side has ever been satisfied with the 1993 law, and women's groups demanding greater reproductive rights say it is no compromise at all.
Earlier attempts by the conservative ruling party to change the law to ban all abortions were met with enormous street protests in 2016 dominated by women wearing black. In the face of huge societal pressure, the party shelved its plans then.
Now, the leadership appears to have calculated that it could change the law with less of a backlash by getting a court under its political control to do it during the pandemic. If that was the case, its plan has backfired for now, though it remains to be seen how long the protests will keep going or if they lose public support eventually.
The protests included people disrupting Mass and spray-painting slogans on churches last Sunday. Young protesters also chant obscenities directed at the ruling party and the church. These actions have offended many people in the largely Catholic nation, even some who disagree with the court ruling.
The ruling Law and Justice party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has since called on supporters to defend churches. And TVP, the state broadcaster which is used as a party mouthpiece, has been condemning the protesters, repeatedly calling them "left-wing fascists" and in a Thursday evening broadcast comparing them to totalitarian regimes that oppressed the church.
Last week's constitutional court ruling leaves only the woman's health or pregnancy resulting from crimes as legal reasons for abortion.
Health Ministry figures show that 1,110 legal abortions were carried out in Poland in 2019, mostly because of fetal defects.
Polish women seeking abortions get them in Germany or other nearby nations, or illegally in Poland.