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Women, Populism and Protests in Poland

31 Oct 2016
By Magdalena Janas
Poland_protests. Photo Credit: Grzegorz Zukowski (Flickr) Creative Commons

Recent protests by Polish women against a new abortion bill have made international headlines. They serve as a reminder of the internal tensions in Poland and the need to think seriously about the relationship between gender and populism.

 On 3 October around 200,000 women gathered in cities around Poland as part of the ‘Black Monday’ protests against a near-total ban on abortion. The protests united Poland’s peripheral feminist movement with self-identified Roman Catholics, who make up around 90 per cent of the population.

Inspired by the all-out Icelandic strike in 1975, women went on strike in response to the Law and Justice (PiS) government supporting legislation that would make abortion illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life is directly threatened. It would also increase maximum jail sentences for practitioners who assist from two to five years, as well as making mothers liable to prison terms. Most protesters cited concerns for the implications for miscarriage and the consequences of rape; they supported the existing regulation. Demonstrations were held in solidarity in cities across Europe, including in Berlin, Brussels, Belfast, London and Paris.

The legislation was brought to parliament by a citizens’ initiative, a petition that had gathered approximately 450,000 signatures, submitted by Ordo Iuris and the Stop Abortion coalition. The ruling party, PiS, voted unanimously to pass the proposal to the next stage of the legislative process, investigation by parliamentary committee, while voting down a liberalising alternative proposed by the Save Women coalition.

In the EU, only Ireland, Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Northern Ireland have more restrictive laws. The existing law, passed in 1993, only allows abortions in the case of rape or incest, when the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother or the foetus is severely deformed. In reality, some doctors refuse to perform legal abortions, or do not alert their patients to risks involved in their pregnancies. ‘Abortion tourism’, typically to Germany, Slovakia, Austria and Holland, as well as mistrust between women, their doctors and gynaecologists, is strong. Last year there were 1040 legal abortions in Poland, but estimates suggest as many as 150,000 illegal abortions took place in the same time.

A poll issued by Newsweek Polska, indicates 74 per cent of Poles prefer to keep the existing law, while a recent Ipsos poll suggests 11 per cent favour more restrictive abortion laws. Recent protests appear to have increased public support for liberalisation. There are fears that the new laws would put women who had miscarried under suspicion, as well as discouraging doctors from conducting routine procedures in fear of being accused of facilitating termination.

The mass protests in early October caused PiS to back down, with Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz telling reporters that PiS had “backtracked because it was scared by all the women who hit the streets in protest”. PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, suggested that the government may compromise by tightening restrictions only on terminations carried out on the basis of congenital disorder. This response motivated the second round of protests that took place on 23 and 24 October.

The abortion debate in Poland has also been influenced by the Catholic Church. In April this year the Polish Episcopate released a letter appealing for a strengthening of restrictions on abortion in Poland. Although the Catholic Church initially supported the proposed bill, bishops have since come out in opposition to the imprisonment of women who have abortions.

Controversial legacy

This isn’t the first time this issue has been protested in Poland. The post-communist context has made it a lightning rod for debate on the role of the Catholic Church in politics, law and national identity. The authoritarian communist system limited civic freedoms, but provided guaranteed employment and—at least until the crisis of the 1980s, secured access to basic needs. The Church provided a safe haven for political dissenters. The fall of the regime allowed for the gradual growth of civil society and permeation of Western influence, whilst reducing job security and facilitating the rise of populism.

In 1990, soon after the fall of communism, thousands demonstrated against a proposed bill, resulting in a clause that would have women imprisoned for termination being thrown out. The law passed in 1993 restricted abortions that had been freely available under communism. A retrospective on public opinion suggests that Poles’ moral views on abortion generally correspond with legislation. In 1996 tens of thousands demonstrated in Warsaw against potential liberalisation of abortion law, with opposition publicly declared by Pope John Paul II. Counter-demonstrations were difficult to organise, due to a lack of strong women’s groups and reluctance of publicly defying the church. This is despite the fact that in 1993, shortly after the current abortion laws were legislated, 80 per cent of Polish women thought the restriction would worsen material conditions for many families and only 13 per cent believed that it would increase morality in society. The same survey indicated that 65 per cent of women would not condemn another woman for having an abortion abroad if they didn’t have the material capacity to raise a child.

The environment in Poland has changed regarding the acceptability of challenging the views of the church due to the flourishing of civil society and the increase in transfer of ideas. This is probably aided by growing public opposition to PiS. Those protesting the proposed laws still broadly remain opposed to abortion more generally, but are fearful for the implications of the proposed change. There is a sense of fear that if women don’t speak out now, they could be completely silenced. This isn’t such a distant dystopia—we need only recall Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s Decree 770.

Wider discontent and its impact

The political impact of protest is dismissed by many as inconsequential while being championed by others as the antidote to short-sighted elites. Neither of these perspectives acknowledges the reliance of leaders on society for legitimacy, which is usually achieved through the appeal to and construction of norms and identities. In particular, Polish male leaders have appealed to a traditional, masculine national identity rooted in religious belief, while many of the primary frustrations of Poles, including poor quality healthcare, increased inequality, unemployment driving migration, and lack of trust in political institutions, remain unaddressed.

Women continue to fight back against the use of such an identity by governments to gain legitimacy whilst silencing them as active citizens. To their detriment, Polish political elites underestimated the level of tension between their traditional, gendered model of national identity and women’s increasing willingness and capacity to organise against it.

Recent efforts to restrict women’s reproductive choice have been deemed unacceptable, resulting in a loss of legitimacy for the government and exposing the narrowness of the demographic to which their construction of identity appeals. Such gendered identity politics are shaping the populist rhetoric of today and further obfuscating underlying economic and political issues such as inequality and corruption.

Magdalena Janas is an honours student at Monash University in Melbourne. She has recently completed her thesis on Poland’s transition from post-communism to the present day.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.