As the crisis around changes implemented to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal continues, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has opened up a new conflict through an attack on the reproductive rights of women. This is significant as it would not only mean making abortion completely illegal in Poland, but also shows how the country is moving further away from being a democratic, secular state. The hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church is directly intervening in a major political issue and dictating how the government should act. This has caused an immediate reaction amongst those opposed to the tightening of the abortion law, with thousands already taking to the streets in protest.
Poland already has one of the most restrictive and repressive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion was made illegal in 1993, in a move that was ludicrously described as a ‘compromise’. It banned abortion in all but three circumstances: where there is a high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the foetus or where it will have an incurable life-threatening disease; where a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health; or where the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act.
This draconian abortion law has inevitably resulted in huge numbers of Polish women either being forced to undergo illegal abortions in Poland or travel abroad to have their pregnancies terminated. It is obviously the least well off women – unable to travel abroad – who most often have to have illegal ‘backstreet’ abortions in Poland. It is estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions take place in the country each year, which carry significant health risks. The fact that women whose lives are at risk or have become pregnant due to rape would now no longer be able to have a legal and safe abortion, or that a woman could be prosecuted for having had a miscarriage that is deemed to be her fault, highlights the barbarity of the current proposal to completely outlaw abortion.
The church in power
The second alarming factor in this situation is that the proposal has come directly from the top of the Catholic Church that is now directing government policy on this crucial issue. The Presidium of the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement last week that Poland should not halt at the present ‘compromise’ on abortion, but move towards a total ban. This statement was then read out in churches throughout Poland on Sunday. This has concurred with an action being run by the ‘Stop Abortion’ campaign to collect signatures in order to put forward a citizens’ bill to parliament to completely outlaw abortion in the country.
The Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has said that she personally supports a complete ban on abortion. Even more disturbingly, the leader of PiS (and de facto the most powerful politician in Poland) has stated that as a Catholic he has to support the decisions of the Bishops, and that although his parliamentary group would have a free vote he was sure that the vast majority would vote for the bill.
Although support for the legalisation of abortion has waned during the past two decades, a large majority of Polish society is against it being completely banned (80% when it threatens the life of the mother, 73% when the pregnancy is the result of rape; 53% when the child would be born ill or handicapped). However, the Polish government is now clothing itself in a cape of religious morality that cannot be questioned. As they are believers in the Catholic faith, they must simply do as the Church dictates. This moves Poland further away from a form of government based upon the opinions of the majority, and towards one that is run according to the ideology and decisions of a religious institution.
The claim by leading members of PiS that they are simply following their faith through obeying the decisions of the Catholic Church is misleading. For example, the Pope last year made a strong statement urging action on climate change, arguing that it ‘is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation’ Meanwhile, the present Minister of the Environment is someone who in the past has claimed that climate change is not a threat and the government has recently announced a drastic increase in logging in the country’s unique Białowieża forest.
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Likewise, Pope Francis has repeatedly called for help for refugees during the present crisis, stating that all religious communities should aid and give shelter to refugees However, the present Polish government has been one of the most hostile to refugees and, after the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, it quickly announced that it would no longer take the quota of refugees that it had agreed previously with the EU. Therefore, whilst the conservative right in Poland is now talking about the ‘rights of children’ it is turning a blind eye to those refugee children being washed up on the shores of southern Europe, or the estimated 10,000 refugee children that have gone missing in Europe since the crisis began.
This blatant attack on the reproductive rights of women has been met with strong resistance. On Saturday (2 April), the left-wing party Razem organised protests around the country, including a demonstration of around 7,000 in front of the parliament. The atmosphere was defiant, with protestors holding up coat hangers as a symbol of the brutality of illegal abortions. A coalition of women’s groups and other organisations has been formed to protest against the government’s proposal, with a large demonstration planned in Warsaw this Saturday (9 April). Already, solidarity protests have been organised in other countries, with the Young Labour Women organisation also holding a picket in front of the Polish embassy in London this Saturday.
This aggressive move by PiS and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is another sign of the anti-democratic and socially regressive nature of the present government. If it goes ahead with its stated intention to support the project to completely ban abortion in Poland, then the divisions and conflicts within the country will only intensify. The fight to defend women’s reproductive rights from further erosion in Poland is part of a wider movement to oppose a government that is becoming increasingly authoritarian and regressive.
Gavin Rae is a sociologist in Warsaw. He has written extensively on the political and social changes in Poland and central and eastern Europe, including Poland's Return to Capitalism: From the Socialist Bloc to the European Union and Public Capital: The Commodification of Poland's Welfare State.