Protests broke out in Poland on Wednesday evening, after the government announced that a controversial court ruling tightening Poland’s already strict abortion laws was set to take effect on Wednesday.

Thousands of women’s rights protesters gathered in central Warsaw, before marching to the headquarters of the ruling Law and Justice party chanting anti-government slogans, and defying pandemic restrictions banning large gatherings.

Smaller protests took place in other cities, including Lodz, Krakow, Katowice and Poznan.

The source of protesters’ ire is an October ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal which declared that a 1993 law allowing abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

That ruling implied a significant tightening of Poland’s abortion laws — already among the most restrictive in Europe — and meant that terminations would be possible only in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life or health was at risk. These accounted for just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions carried out in Poland in 2019.

The ruling triggered huge protests when it was issued last autumn, with tens of thousands of Poles taking to the streets in towns and cities across the county. In the face of mounting public anger, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice backed down, delaying the publication of the ruling, thereby preventing the new restrictions from coming into force.

However, after the Constitutional Tribunal published the written justification of its ruling on Wednesday, the government said that the verdict would now be published in the official gazette later in the day, at which point the new restrictions will officially become law.

The announcement provoked a furious reaction from women’s rights activists, with Strajk Kobiet, the group which organised last year’s protests, calling for fresh protests on Wednesday night. “Let’s give them hell that they will remember until the end of their lives,” the group wrote on Twitter.

Opposition politicians joined the condemnation. “This is not the end,” Wanda Nowicka, a MP from the leftwing grouping, Lewica, wrote on Twitter. “You haven’t won this war with women, and you won’t win it.”

Borys Budka, leader of the biggest opposition group, the centre-right Civic Coalition said raising such a divisive issue now was a “provocation” by Law and Justice’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, intended to distract from the ruling party’s problems dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Jaroslaw Kaczynski is responsible for unleashing a Polish-Polish war, and setting Poland on fire,” Mr Budka told a press conference.

Anti-abortion groups, meanwhile, hailed the decision. “This is a step forward, firmly removing purely eugenic abortion from Polish law,” said Jerzy Kwasniewski, from the conservative group Ordo Iuris.

The move to tighten Poland’s abortion laws comes amid a broader push by Law and Justice, which came to power in 2015, to promote traditional, Catholic values, which it believes are under threat from the liberal principles that hold sway in much of western Europe.

During the past two years, the party has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the LGBT rights movements, and backed away from a previous attempt to tighten Poland’s abortion laws in 2016 only after huge street protests.

Even before the constitutional court’s ruling law in October, women’s rights groups said that only 10 per cent of Polish hospitals were prepared to carry out abortions. Between 80,000 and 120,000 Polish women are thought to have abortions each year, and many go abroad to do so.