Pro-choice movement in Poland is taking on church and state
Why are so many Polish women turning their backs on the Catholic Church?
People protest in Gdansk against Polish government plans to tighten anti-abortion laws. Photograph: Michal Fludra/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images
Scores of women then walked out in protest, their exodus filmed in famous churches such as St Mary’s Basilica in Gdansk and St Anne’s Church in Warsaw.
Outside, thousands of women gathered on city streets and squares, listening to pro-choice speakers and holding up signs that flashed their opinions: “Hands off my uterus,” “No to torturing women,” “I’ll have a child when I want to.” They brandished coat hangers, an implement of dangerous self- induced abortion first politicised by American feminists in the 1960s.
These actions mark an extraordinary nationwide moment for Polish women and Polish Catholicism. I have been studying Polish culture since the 1980s, when the Catholic Church strived to be the true ally of the working class in a communist state. The 1978 election of a Polish pope, John Paul II, bolstered the rise of Solidarity, an independent trade union that eventually engendered several political parties in post-1989 Poland. The church produced martyrs for the people’s cause.
The church wielded even greater authority over Polish society after the fall of communism, though that authority remained deeply patriarchal, with liberty and justice for some, not all. John Paul II stood tough against a corrupt communist system and initiated an important rapprochement between Catholics and Jews, but a campaign for women’s reproductive rights lay beyond his religious belief. This Polish pope subscribed fully to the Catholic doctrine that human life begins at conception. Abortion had been legal in communist Poland. In post-communist Poland, the church helped push through a “compromise” in 1993 – a law that allowed women to have abortions only in the case of rape, incest, severe foetal impairment and risk to the mother’s life.
Poland’s abortion law is one of the most restrictive in the world, yet was not ameliorated even after the country’s admission into the European Union in 2004.
Why, then, have so many Polish women turned their backs on the church in recent weeks? For six months, huge numbers of Poles have taken to the streets, protesting against an ever more repressive government. The conservative Law and Justice party, which won a clear majority in parliament last October, wasted no time pushing its nationalist agenda. It has defied the authority of the extant Polish constitution and the constitutional tribunal, placed a “leftist” public media under government control, distanced itself from the socially liberal policies of the EU and tarnished as traitors those who disagree with its anti-pluralist stance on virtually every issue ranging from sexuality to national self-criticism.
Now members of the Committee in Defence of Democracy, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, march en masse in Polish cities almost every week, carrying signs and giving speeches.
Their efforts have provoked opposition, with anti-abortion protests springing up as well. Backed by the church, those protesters have called for a tightening of the abortion laws to allow abortion only when the woman’s life is in danger.
Polish Catholic women did not decide to walk out of church on April 3rd until the episcopate ordered priests to endorse Law and Justice legislation during Mass. The line separating church and state was expediently erased. A supposedly independent lobbying committee, Stop Abortion, collected the 100,000 signatures required to present the abortion ban Bill to parliament; only the church could approve such a Bill; and the all-Catholic Law and Justice party could only obey the church. Lest there be any opposition, the church enlisted its local representatives to tell the faithful how to vote.
This church-party strategy backfired, provoking rather than pre-empting opposition. A non-partisan group, Women for Women, formed on Face- book, gathering 100,000-plus members and organising protests and church walkouts. The opposition has picked up steam and plenty of left-wing political support, generating a new committee, Let’s Save Women, which proposes more radical legislative and educational reform.
Let’s Save Women has three months to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to propose its Bill “in support of women’s rights and informed parenting” – specifically, legalised abortion for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, Poles’ guaranteed access to contraceptives without a prescription, and mandatory sex education in the schools. Supporters of Let’s Save Women insist they will not accept a church-run government – the result being a contentious battle between theocracy and secular democracy in 21st-century Poland.
Beth Holmgren is a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University