During his last visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, gave a speech in which he addressed the critics made against the Polish state regarding its violation of the rule of law. To highlight the fact that Poland is deeply rooted in parliamentarianism and the rule of law, he specified, “we were one of the first countries to give full democratic rights to women”.
Although, it is true that Polish women enjoy the right to vote since 1918 – long before some Western countries such as France (which allowed it in 1944) -, since the coming to power of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), women’s rights in Poland have been under constant threat and have even been reduced.
The abortion law in Poland, for once, is one the most rigid within the EU. Even though it was authorised under the Polish Communist Government (from 1956 to 1993) for reason such as “difficult living conditions”, after the fall of communism, and following a compromise between the Church and the State, a new law (Law on family planning, protection of the human foetus and conditions for the legal abortion) was adopted.
The latter, still in force today and subject of the current controversial reforms, allows abortion in only three restricted situations: when the woman’s life or health is in jeopardy, in cases of rape/incest or if the foetus is irreparably damaged. However, the decision to perform an abortion remains in the hand of the medical staff, allowing them to refuse to perform it by invoking a “conscience clause”.
The abortion reform was first mentioned in 2016, and the Polish government has not given up on repealing the existing law despite the numerous movements that have since risen at every corner of the country, in both major and minor cities. Large numbers of protests are still on going and are to take place as long as the government does not answer to their demand, that is to put the bill “Do kosza!” (Into the thrash!). In other words, the protestors want the bill to be rejected in order to end the debate.
The last protest was held on July 2nd, when the bill to ban abortion was once again brought to the parliament. Marta Lempart, the founder and leader of the movement Strajk Kobiet (Polish Women on Strike), believes that the protests “are the main reason that the total ban has not yet been established”, she adds that if it wasn’t for the people protesting “the total abortion ban would be here already”.
The protests were in favour of the situation remaining unchanged, that is to say to allow abortion in three restrictive situations. However, according to Marta Lempart, the tense situation only serves to lead people to support the idea of free and legal abortion in Poland.
She even believes that “PiS will be the one to thank for the legal abortion in Poland, as their actions push more and more people on the pro-choice side”. By always bringing back the disagreement, the government is giving reasons for an ever-growing part of the population to not only want things to stay the same but to make #AbortoLegal.
As for the so-called “conscience clause”, it does not only apply to doctors; pharmacists are also using it to refuse selling morning-after pills or even contraception pills. According to Marta Lempart, this allows them to “put their personal religious beliefs above patient’s rights”.
In terms of statistics, between 1000 and 2000 abortion per year (latest data available are from 2016) are recorded every year, despite the fact that there are 38 million people living on Polish soil. In that regard, it is important to look at the illegal abortions that are performed, as well as the “abortion tourism” that consists in women travelling to a neighbouring country in order to access their right.
Religious values shape women’s rights
However, the issue with the violation of women’s rights in Poland does not limit itself to the reform of the abortion law. As Marta Lempart underlines it, one of the issues with Poland, if not the main one, is the uncontested influence that the Catholic Church retains over the society and the government.
Religious values found their way to the highest position of the state and are influencing the decisions taken. One of the consequence of this merging has been the taken on women’s rights, with the Church giving directions on what policies should be led, notably on matters concerning women and their bodies.
It has come to a point where even individual clergymen are participating in the debate over women’s rights, with some priests to sharing their ideas during services. The 2018 Easter service in Lwówek Śląski is such an example. During the service, the priest compared women to terrorists and murderers, even putting coat-hangers (symbol of the protestors) and a riffle on the Catholic cross so as to show the threat that feminists represent.
What’s more, Polish educational programs portray those religious values and therefore promote hetero-normative views of what a family, as well as gender roles, should look like.
In concurrence, although the government seems to be following on the one hand a social line, by implementing the 500+ program, it is, on the other hand, only favouring “normal” families that is to the exclusion of single mothers, who do not benefit from this policy.
The concept of family according to the Polish state is very much linked to that of the Church, therefore impacting Polish women’s rights such as the right to divorce (high divorce fees) or to have access to help when victim of domestic violence (cutting funds for domestic violence survivors centres). PiS is even considering withdrawing form the Istanbul Convention.
According to Marta Lempart, the EU should take all measures possible in order to punish the Polish government for its drift on the rule of law and democracy. Moreover, Poland has ratified both the European Convention on Human Rights (joined in 1991) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (although Poland has an opt-out), as did every other member of the Union, which is why the ECtHR delivered three judgments against Poland, none of which have been implemented, although the state has had to pay compensation. Two of those decisions (R.R. v. Poland and P. and S. v. Poland) state that Poland violated article 3 of the Convention (right to stay free form inhumane and degrading treatment).
These protests, led by engaged and eager women such as Marta Lempart, are in the end, the embodiment of the fracture within the Polish society between people rooted in Catholicism, and supporting a radical approach of the state towards social issues, and people who believe in a more secular approach, allowing every member of the society to dispose of its own body and to have access to the same rights as others.
Women’s rights in Poland, are not only Polish women’s concerns, they are those of every citizen of the European Union, whether man and woman, and regardless of their country of origin. To quote Marta Lempart “this is not another political fight, it’s war in the defence of modern civilisation and its major values”. What is happening to women in Poland is not guaranteed that it won’t spread to the rest of Europe.
What does the Polish government wishes to achieve through retraining women’s rights? Forbidding abortion and implementing social policies is hardly going to increase the birth rate. If the government is concerned that making abortion legal would have a negative impact on the country’s demography, it should think twice and remember Simone Weil’s declaration in front of the French Parliament “No woman goes through an abortion lightly”. This statement was true in 1974 and is still valid today.