The following piece is part of the Quest’s ongoing series featuring the final projects and assignments of Minerva students. This piece was written for Minerva’s Government and Social Change course. To view more final projects, click here. If you are a Minerva student and would like to have your final project published, fill out this form.
According to the 2020 Freedom House report, Poland became the second EU country to lose its status of full democracy. Since October 2020, Poland has been facing the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989 as a reaction to the high court proposing a near-total ban on abortion. Currently, the government has not yet carried out the court’s ruling, potentially due to the national uprising (Mechlinska, 2020). Up until now, abortion was legal under the circumstances of a threat to a woman’s health, incest or rape, and fetal abnormalities. The recent court proposal out rules the last reason, fetal abnormalities, which is estimated to account for 98% of all legal abortions (UN Human Rights, 2020).
So far, the activity of the pro-choice movement in Poland as a response to the court proposal has been concentrated in protests and civil disobedience and has morphed into a protest to take down the current government, dismantling the power structure in place since 1989 (Taub, 2020). There are predominantly women, young people, and their male allies protesting in the streets, some of them targeting the Catholic Church directly through painting on churches, disrupting services (Brzozowski, 2020). Recently, the Women’s Strike Movement has appointed a Consultative Council that aims to coordinate actions from many organizations in оrdеr to put thrоugh the dеmands of the protestors in 13 key areas (Kucharczyk, 2020).
In summary, apart from fighting for abortion rights, the Council wants to demand more legitimacy of the rule of law, independence of the Constitutional Tribunal from the Parliament, separation of Church and State, LGBTQ+ rights that have been previously denied, environmentalism and combating the violence against women (Kucharczyk, 2020).
In order to critically understand the abortion situation in Poland and propose courses of action, it is important to take a look at the background prior to the current events —the role of national identity and communism in the history of abortion rights in Poland, together with examining the problems in today’s government and the influence of the Catholic Church in these areas.
Abortion and National Identity
Prior to 1989, abortion was legal, even for social reasons, but the Church had no say in the workings of the government. However, this policy was not the result of a feminist movement, but rather an instrument to keep the population stable and healthy (i.e. to prevent women from undertaking illegal abortions, going abroad, etc.). Women were still perceived as keepers of the private and family life without much individualism (Nowicka, 2007). This needs-based approach still undermines the women’s rights to their bodies and prioritizes traditional family roles over autonomy. Nowicka argues that this was a predisposition for women to lose this right to abortion because it had been granted to them to uphold family values and not to celebrate their human rights (2007). Therefore, it would not be useful to bring up this piece of history when advocating for abortion rights today.
Nowicka quotes a UN debate that outlines the anti-choice standpoint: “anti-choice groups have criticized the pro-choice focus of human rights-based approaches to health for ignoring the basic needs of women, arguing that the human-rights approach is inferior to the discourse on basic needs, which emphasizes women’s very survival” (2008). This idea is presented as a fаlsе dichotоmy as there is a strong connection between a person’s needs and rights.
In Nowicka, Duch brings up another point about the female role in Polish society (2000). In the 19th century, Poland was divided into Russia, Prussia, and Austria and the woman was seen as an “omnipotent preserver of the fаmily and the national identity,” a mentality still aррarent today. She is not an individual with her own ideas, but rаther a hеro thrоugh her motherhоod and any attеmpt to shift frоm that is interpreted as an attempt to “betray the nation and the Church” (Duch, 2000).
PiS, The Parliament, and the Constitutional Tribunal: A Summary
Currently, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) is the ruling party in Poland. PiS is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). The Constitutional Tribunal (CT) is an independent entity that is supposed to check if anything passed by the Parliament is in agreement with the Constitution. However, as Matczak states, the CT has been “pаralyzed” by the PiS through different аctions like increasing the size of the majority needed to revoke legislation, fоrcing а delay in dеciding a constitutional cаse, giving the minority and the Minister of Justicе the right to impede the operations of the CT (2020). Currently, 14 out of 15 judges in the CT are appointed by PiS (Taub, 2020). That way, it is difficult for any legislation passed by PiS to be rejected. This situation resembles the effect of what Fukuyama would call an institutional decay (2014). He describes it as a result of “repatrimonialisation” —a reversion to clientelism and kinship as exploitation of power during a stage of societal development. In the case of Poland, the institutional decay can be seen through the almost authoritarian rule of the PiS where the supposed democratic entities have been compromised.
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church is closely related to the Polish nation. Topidi observes that the church has become an independent actor for intervention, has a large political influence, and does not reflect the otherwise weak beliefs of the population, as opposed to a largely secularizing world where the Church has a seriously diminishing weight in political decisions (2019). It had a crucial role in the smooth transition from communism to democracy 30 years ago. This is reflected in a 2016 statement of Kaczyński, the chairman of PiS: “We will strive to ensure that even cases of very difficult pregnancies, when the child is certain to die, very deformed, still end up in a birth, so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name” (Walker, 2020).
Constitution of Poland
There are several key parts of the Constitution that are relevant to the 2020 Women’s Strike Movement (ConstituteProject, 2020):
- Article 25: (3)The relationship between the State and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for their autonomy and the mutual independence of each in its own sphere, as well as on the principle of cooperation for the individual and the common good.
- Article 195: (1) Judges of the Constitutional Tribunal, in the exercise of their office, shall be independent and subject only to the Constitution. (3) Judges of the Constitutional Tribunal, during their term of office, shall not belong to a political party, a trade union or perform public activities incompatible with the principles of the independence of the courts and judges.
Further Actions for the Women’s Strike Movement
[Note: This analysis reflects the status of the movement as of mid-December 2020.]
This issue can be tackled on a few levels: societal, governmental, or international. The first level is already acting —the demonstrations keep going to this day. On the governmental level, the CT has not published the new law yet, so there is still hope there. However, the level of corruption that was outlined above suggests that they are not willing to listen to the public demands directly. On the international level, it can be talked about attracting ECR’s attention, the EU’s attention and international attention (overseas NGOs, UN, etc.).
The Consultative Council should narrow its 13 demands to a more actionable initial set. The Council should focus on how the current government actions are unconstitutional —there is a discrepancy between the interconnectedness of the Church, PiS, and the CT and their independence postulated by the Constitution. More importantly, they should seek external support to separate the Church and the State because the Government’s reasoning against abortion is aligned with the Catholic views.
However, it would be tricky to pursue an alliance with the EU due to Poland and Hungary’s veto on the EU funding plan on the grounds of a lack of respect for the rule of law (Boffey, 2020).
Therefore, the Council can try to appeal to the ECR as they advocate for the independence of church and state and claim that “ensuring that companies, politicians and public institutions are acting in the best interests of the public is pivotal to the proper functioning of society” (ECR Group, n.d.). The Council can point out how the Polish government is currently violating those claims which will hopefully inspire the ECR to take action in order to protect its standing in the EU.
Furthermore, the Council and the activists can seek the public support of the ECR member states, in particular, to make the issue more public and trigger a response in the corresponding conservative parties from the grassroots level.
Overall, it seems like the idea of the woman’s role in Poland is deeply rooted in its culture and it will take a lot of work over the generations to achieve truly transformational change. The magnitude of the current protests shows that the number of people willing to change has risen drastically. However, it is unlikely that the government, as it is right now, will respond right away to the protesters’ demands about legalizing abortions completely. Therefore, they should look for support beyond their country and in the place where the discrepancy stems from —the deeply rooted dependence between the Church and the State.
Boffey, D. (2020, November 16). EU faces crisis as Hungary and Poland veto seven-year budget. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/16/eu-hungary-veto-budget-viktor-orban
Burchard, H. (2020, November 26). Hungary and Poland escalate budget fight over rule of law. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-hungary-budget-democracy-rule-law-orban-morawiecki-merkel/
Constitute Project. (2020, February 4). Poland’s Constitution of 1997 with Amendments through 2009. Constitute. https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Poland_2009.pdf?lang=en
ECR Group. (n.d.). Improving the union’s efficiency and effectiveness. https://ecrgroup.eu/vision/improving_efficiency_effectiveness1
European Parliament. (2020, November 26). Polish de facto ban on abortion puts women’s lives at risk, says Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20201120IPR92132/polish-de-facto-ban-on-abortion-puts-women-s-lives-at-risk-says-parliament
Freedom House. (2020, May 5). Poland. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/poland/nations-transit/2020
Fukuyama, F. (2014). Political order and political decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the globalization of democracy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Gessen, M. (2020, November 17). The abortion protests in Poland are starting to feel like a revolution. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-abortion-protests-in-poland-are-starting-to-feel-like-a-revolution
Kucharczyk, M. (2020, November 2). Poland’s women’s strike movement sets up consultative council. Euractiv. https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/polands-womens-strike-movement-sets-up-consultative-council/
Maney, G., Kutz-Flamenbaum, R., & Rohlinger, D. (2012). Strategies for social change. University of Minnesota Press.
Matczak, M. (2020). The clash of powers in Poland’s rule of law crisis: Tools of attack and self-defense. Hague Journal on the Rule of Law. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40803-020-00144-0
Nowicka, W. (2007). Poland: The Struggle for Abortion Rights in Poland. https://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf
Taub, A. (2020, December 10). In Poland, protests over abortion ban could revolutionize politics. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/world/europe/poland-abortion-protests.html
Topidi, K. (2019). Religious freedom, national identity, and the Polish Catholic Church: Converging visions of nation and god. Religions, 10(5), 293. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10050293
UN Human Rights. (2020, October 27). Poland has slammed door shut on legal and safe abortions – UN experts. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26434&LangID=E
Vox. (2020, December 8). Why Poland is having huge protests [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmSXB7ukH4M
Walker, S. (2020, December 13). Polish women travel abroad for abortions ahead of law change. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/13/polish-women-travel-abroad-for-abortions-ahead-of-new-law
This piece is a COMMUNITY piece. It was reviewed to ensure that it adheres to our content guidelines and category definitions. If you believe that it has violated a content guideline, please reach out by completing this form. If you have any other feedback, please get in touch by emailing [email protected].