Non possumus – Polish women have enough of other people deciding on their behalf. In the recent weeks thousands of them have been demonstrating on the streets to protest against the total ban on abortion. The radical proposal formally came from a marginal conservative NGO, yet it was eagerly supported by Prime Minister Beata Szydło, the leader of the rulling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, and the Polish Bishops. In the current debate we need to defend basic rights of self-determination which women gained not without difficulty 80 years ago. And while in the meantime the Polish society has advanced in so many different aspects, the issue of women’s reproductive rights is in a clear regression.
A Long Battle for Dignity
In 1930, a Polish liberal writer Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński published his famous essay Women’s Hell. It was not only a brilliant, but also engaged piece of journalism. The author criticised the harsh laws of the time that denied Polish women the access to contraception and abortion, while not providing any support for children. In particular poor women faced unsolvable dilemmas, as they had no means to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Two years later, Polish authorities de-penalised abortion, if it was justified for medical reasons or if the pregnancy was the result of a criminal act. This would not have been possible if not the efforts of people like Boy-Żeleński and feminist activists: Joanna Budzińska Tylicka, Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska, Zofia Praussowa, among others. And their fight went far beyond the right to abortion. Social activists of the interwar period cared not only about the choice to have children or not, but also about the children themselves. They advocated for better accessibility of paediatric healthcare and more places in kindergartens and nurseries.
The abortion law was further liberalised in the 1950s as a result of an initiative of female politicians. Since then difficult living conditions could also justify termination of a pregnancy. In practice, in communist Poland safe abortion public health-care institutions provided all women with access to safe abortion.
The Limits of My Language Are the Limits of My World
Sadly, one of the few liberties expanded by the communist government was taken away after the transition by the post-Solidarity and Catholic movements. Although over one million people supported with their signatures the idea of organising a referendum on the abortion law, in 1993 women’s right to choose was limited by simple decision of the Parliament. The harsh law generally delegalised abortion and only allowed for three exceptions: if the women’s life or health was in danger, if the pregnancy was the result of the criminal act or if the foetus had a genetic disorder.
Although the new restrictive law faced strong criticism, it has been since then referred to as a “compromise”. The use of this term marked the beginning of a semantic transition in the Polish debate on abortion. First, we called a ban on abortion “a compromise”. Then, we allowed “pro-life” movements to re-shape the language even further. Termination has been called “a murder”. Zygote has been called “an unborn child”. The right to choose has been marked as “immoral” and pro-choice activists have been described as “pro-abortion”, “abortionists” or even “murderers”. Women disappeared from the debate – the current draft anti-abortion law does not need to mention “pregnant women”, it refers only to “mothers of unborn children”.
Given the circumstances, it cannot come as a surprise that most Polish people recognise the woman’s right to choose only in a very limited number of situations. As latest social surveys show, 80% of Polish people accept the right to abortion, if a woman’s life is in danger, 73% if the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act and 71% when woman’s health is threatened. Less people accept abortion in case of a genetic disorder of the foetus. On the other hand only 13-14% of Polish people agree that abortion should be legal also if a woman faces difficult economic or personal situation or when she simply does not wish to be a mother1.
As another survey shows, abortion is mainly an issue for poorer women – they undergo it more frequently, as better-off women face fewer challenges in raising children. Amongst women who terminated their pregnancy, 36% described their views as “right-wing”, while 27% as “left-wing”. Almost 50% of women who terminated their pregnancy attend church at least once a week. More than 70% finished their education at elementary or lower-secondary level2.
We could think of the problem as implementation of the majority’s will. It is, however, by far not obvious, whether the supporters of the ruling party or the members of the Catholic Church indeed share the restrictive view on abortion law. Based on a survey carried out in summer 2015, among people who declared themselves as potential voters of Law and Justice, 52% supported a complete ban on abortion, while 21% agreed with the current legal situation and 19% supported its further liberalisation. These results show that Law and Justice and the Catholic Church manipulate large part of their female electorate and believers. They put limitations to basic personal rights, without having a strong democratic mandate to do so even among own supporters (who tend in the last years to support less restrictive, not more restrictive solutions)3.
Law versus Reality
The current law gives women freedom to choose only in limited circumstances, in practice even more limited than the legal stance. Leading pro-choice NGOs help hundreds of women who face problems in executing their right to legal abortion, as hospitals frequently refuse to carry out the intervention. The so-called “conscience clause” is used by gynaecologists to refuse prescribing contraception and carrying out abortions. A recent spotlight case was caused by Prof. Bogdan Chazan. As a leading “pro-life” activists and gynaecologist he refused termination of a pregnancy, although the child had a serious genetic disorder and there were no doubts that newly-born could live more than a few days. Prof. Chazan remains a hero for “anti-choice” activists.
On the other hand, doctors who recently performed a legal abortion of a foetus with a genetic disorder may face a legal investigation. This leads to the conclusion that, despite what some people claim (including leaders of opposition parties), we do not have a “compromise” but almost bans on abortion, as the few exceptions provided under the Polish law are not effectively applied.
The Red Line Has Been Crossed
International media showed recently dramatic picture of Polish men and women who protested against further restrictions in the abortion law. A draft of the law, as proposed by an NGO paradoxically called “Ordo Iuris” turns generally illegal, even when woman’s life is threatened! Moreover, even miscarriage can be penalised, except if the prosecutor and the judge agree that the women did not cause it by own actions. The new legislation should also penalise any dangerous behaviours – for example when the woman drinks a beer, smokes a cigarette or goes skiing, if she is aware of the pregnancy, it might lead to penal proceedings and even prison sentence.
This ridiculous proposition, supported by the Church and leading politicians from the ruling party, made thousands of people to go on the streets. It is the first time in the last years when so many people participate in demonstrations for women’s rights – in major Polish cities, but also in the solidarity protests in Dublin, Prague, Budapest, Reykjavik and many other cities. Certainly, what we see is a rise of the new social movement. The aim of this movement at the moment is to put an end to this anti-humane initiative, but in the long run our goal should be the education and change of the discourse. Levelling woman with a zygote or foetus does not empower the second – this perspective only takes away the rights of a woman. We must talk about the right to choice. We must call the ban on abortion the way it really is, not the “compromise”. If someone is against the right to choice, he or she should say “I am against the right to choice in these cases”, not “I support the compromise”.
History Goes Back in Time
Certainly the law on abortion will not be liberalised under the current Parliamentary majority. It is possible that Polish women will be taken away the right to choose even in the limited cases recognised by the current legal framework. Yet, we should not give up persuading politicians that their personal moral choices should not determine their views on the legal propositions. It is important that parties which are considered liberal – for example the Nowoczesna party (Modern) – understand that denying women their basic freedoms is not really modern, and just opposing extreme anti-choice propositions is not good enough.
It is sad to stress that today, almost 80 years after Boy-Żeleński published his work, and when feminist activists fought for basic rights of Polish women, we are very close to finding ourselves back in 1930`. It might be shocking to realise that Polish women regained their rights only under authoritarian regimes – of Sanacja in 1932 and of communists in 1956. Under the rule of democracy, Polish women were betrayed and their position in terms of reproductive rights might have become even worse. It is our job to change this situation. We cannot let Poland to become the hell of women. It is our common cause – of Polish women and men. As long as half of the population cannot decide about their own bodies, we cannot be really satisfied with the condition of democracy in Poland.