Abortion Debate: Sex Discrimination, Poland’s History, Catholic Church

Rupert Bunny "The Rape of Persephone" // Public domain

Poland has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, yet the government hopes to reduce healthcare provision for women even more by criminalizing abortions in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. It does so in the hopes to take advantage of lockdown measures that prevent women from protesting in the streets.

Such extreme legislation is highly barbaric and will likely constitute torture, cruel or inhumane treatment under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Furthermore, it is an insult to Polish women that the government would use the time of pandemic as an opportunity to actively exclude them from having a say over legislation that fundamentally constitutes state-run violence against women.

However, this article does not wish to regurgitate the apparent reasons to defend the right of women to abortion. Instead, it will aim to prove that the very existence of the abortion debate stems from a context of sex discrimination that seeps through all levels of society. Were it not for sex discrimination, there would be no abortion debate – only adequate healthcare provision for women.

It is the context of sex discrimination that makes abortion the problem that it is. Women have been unable to discuss the topic on their terms because the terms are not theirs – in sex, society, and law.

Sex discrimination means that the fundamentals of social norms and institutions operate making the implicit assumption that male is the ideal human, leading to women being viewed as “different” or “other”.

Catherine MacKinnon makes the compelling case that the deep-rootedness of sex discrimination in society is most evident in laws relating to sexual violence and power, including abortion.

Sex and the Chuch

Any laws that prohibit termination of pregnancy unless the women’s life is in danger do so on the assumption that women have significant control over sex.

However, extensive feminist investigation shows this to be a fundamentally distorted image of the nature of women’s sexual intercourse with men. The same people who believe in abstinence to prevent abortion will talk about the wife’s marital duty to submit to sex.

In Poland, the apparent institution guilty of this contradiction is the Catholic Church for whom the government is supporting this deeply problematic legislation – it owes the Church a favor for rallying the faithful to support the now ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS).

Heterosexual intercourse, still the most common cause of pregnancy, cannot be presumed to be equally determined by the man and the women. Women feel compelled to preserve the appearance that it is a male initiative that women want, as if women found arousing the male direction of sexual expression in itself. It is an image that men uphold, and pornography eroticizes.

The Burden of History

Poland, still a highly patriarchal society, has not experienced the waves of feminism comparable to that in the West. Many Polish women are not interested in feminist narratives of equality in the workplace, politics, and the public sphere or inequalities in property ownership.

However, this does not mean that women in Poland do not see the benefits of feminism or feel that they do not need it. Instead, in Poland’s historical context, feminism looks different from its Western manifestation.

Under the Communist rule, working was not considered a form of liberation but oppression in a planned economy controlled by a foreign ruler – the Soviet Union. Women’s role of liberation and freedom was in the home, where they were able to quietly speak to their children and ensure that their minds would not get corrupt by the propaganda they learnt in school.

Poland’s history of foreign rule has created in people a fear of engaging in laud, blatant activism, because one would never know who could be a government informant. Even one’s children or the neighbor’s children could land one in prison.

Therefore, maintaining the freedom of thought was subtle and subdued, not visible to the average onlooker. In such a historical context, Polish feminism developed. The public sphere in which no one was free was undoubtedly not the sphere in which women thought they would see their liberation.

Not the Same Catholic Church

With the fall of Communism, the Catholic Church took on the role of the protector of the Polish nation. A place where people could seek refuge and organize themselves against the Communist rule. Indeed, arguably Poland’s Catholic Church was pivotal in the success of the 1989 Solidarity movement that brought down the Soviet Union.

The strong relationship with the Polish nation gave the Catholic Church the political and social authority it enjoys today. To question the Church means to question one’s own national identity, a significant task of self-reflection requiring a level of education inaccessible to the majority of women in Poland.

Simply put, Polish women hold the burden of gratitude (real or imagined) towards an institution that actively and aggressively campaigns against their interests, while simultaneously providing a source of national identity for many.

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World

We must contextualize the abortion debate within a broader social framework that is inherently male gazed, treating a male perspective of what constitutes sexual violence as the decisive one. Of course, this is not specific to Poland.

However, the societal and moral dominance of the Catholic Church – a male-only institution – makes the male gaze all the more dominant, giving it supposed divine authority.

It is easier for the court and broader society to acknowledge rape where physical violence is present, and intimacy appears absent. The more seemingly intimate the relationship, the less likely will rape be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, statistics show that women are most often raped by their partners, family members, or close friends. Hence, social and legal understanding of sexual violence fails to align with women’s lived experiences. Instead, it reflects the male assumptions on what ‘should’ be perceived as rape.

It is under these conditions of sex discrimination that the abortion debate takes place. Where it not for these conditions, abortion would not be a debate at all.

Women are held fully responsible for pregnancies in social conditions in which they may not use birth control because of its social meaning, which they did not create. In conservative societies like Poland, a good user of contraception risks being perceived as more sexually available and consequently raped with greater impunity.

Tragically, women may also consciously choose the risk of unwanted pregnancy rather than dare to speak up and demand the use of contraception from their partner. Not to mention the economic inequalities that keep comprehensive contraception out of reach for poorer women.

Katherine MacKinnon notes that “abortion policy has never been approached in the context of how women get pregnant; that is, as a consequence of intercourse under conditions of gender inequality; that is an issue of forced sex.”

Considering this social context of the abortion debate, how can one reasonably justify the ban on abortion in general, let alone this cruel and torturous proposition to force women to carry to term pregnancies that have no chance of survival? The only explanation must be the prevention of women from tackling the issue on their terms.

The abortion debate is not a woman’s debate on a strictly woman’s issue. It is a moral and societal debate, carried out within the context of the domination of the male gaze, which by its very existence (and crucially the governmental support of bans on abortion) confirms that their uses, sexual and reproductive, define women.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Poland’s Catholic Church, an institution of only (officially) celibate men, would so firmly hold deeply confused beliefs on the nature of sexual violence and wish to hold women fully responsible for unwanted pregnancies unquestionably.

The abortion debate is not debated by women, of women, and for women. If it were, it would not be a debate at all.

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