Poland’s abortion law is not working [interview]

Law and Justice proposals for a more severe abortion law sparked mass protests. But the previous government is also responsible for the current reproductive rights situation. Interview with Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska.
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Veronika Pehe: Proposals for a new, almost complete ban on abortion in Poland sparked mass protests last month. What is the current status of the proposed law? When is it likely to come into effect?

Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: The bill has just gone through the first reading. At this stage, it is an introductory proposal. The parliament allowed the initiators of the project to start collecting 100 000 signatures in support of the law. Once they have done so, it will come back to parliament. For the groups who put forward this proposal, this is not a problem – they have been introducing such a proposal every year, but under the previous Civic Platform (PO) and People’s Party (PSL) government, they had no chance of passing it.

is a journalist, cultural and women’s rights activist, translator, member of the Social Dialogue Committee for Culture and of Krytyka Polityczna.

Who is behind the proposals? Are they mainly groups connected to the church?

Yes, these are NGOS connected to the church. One of them is the Right to Life Foundation and the other is a legal initiative called Ordo Juris. They try to give the impression they are an objective think tank of lawyers, but they are nothing of the sort. They have been working in the anti-choice field for many years and the fact that they are connected to the church is very important, because they can use their networks to effectively collect signatures – many priests will encourage people to sign the project after each mass.

Women do not have access to legal abortion even in the three cases that are granted by law.

But at the same time, one of the forms of protest was that women walked out of mass to show their disagreement to the proposed law. Does this mean there is also a sizeable community of religious women who are not in favour of these proposals?

In Poland, about 80% of people or more are baptized, but only 40% of those go to church. So when the church says it has the support of the majority – that’s not true. During the last five or ten years, there have been a lot of people leaving the church, and these people are mainly women, because it is women who are the main victims of church policies. These protests were not very numerous – they only happened in several churches – but it was the first time that women really showed that they had had enough and decided to take action. This is a new step. The Polish church is very patriarchal and anachronistic compared to the church in the West, and many women don’t feel they can challenge what they hear from the priest in any way.

Even though there were only small protests in churches, there were a lot of people out in the streets. Who organized these demonstrations? You were also involved, how were people mobilized for this cause?

One important organizer was Razem (Together), Poland’s new left-wing party, and they did very well. They managed to engage many people in the party who were not politically active before. In this sense, they are a fresh force and are not limited by petty personal relationships the way established politicians in small towns are. Razem managed to organize a very big protest in Warsaw. The protests concerning women’s reproductive rights I took part in in the last ten years would generally have about one hundred people attending, while now, there were 7000 people in the streets, which was really amazing! Furthermore, Razem managed to organize protests in many small towns as well, and this is significant, because outside of the main metropolitan areas, priests wield a lot more power and people are usually unwilling to go out into the streets.

Polls show that the most conservative group who are against abortion are youngsters aged between 18-24.

Other protests were organized by a group called “Odzyskać wybór” (Regain the choice). This is an umbrella initiative of many organizations working in the field of reproductive rights and women’s rights – so these groups have experience. But there was also a new phenomenon, a Facebook group called “Dziewuchy dziewucham” (Girls to Girls), and  they gathered a following of 100 000 in two weeks’ time. Moreover, they managed to take their activities off of Facebook and into real life – they are meeting in the towns and organizing various events. Some of the women in charge are film and television producers, so they have experience with big events, and this helps. This is significant, because it means that middle-class people, earlier indifferent to politics, noticed that they cannot ignore what’s going on anymore.

There was a lot of mobilization on social media, for instance the famous “trolling” of the Prime Minister, when women publically sent information about their periods to her. How effective do you think this is as a strategy?

It wasn’t just the Prime Minister, it was also the episcopate. I think they did pose a problem – because it wasn’t a hundred people, it was thousands of people writing publically to the Prime Minister’s office, so they could not be ignored completely. And this was also a great gesture of support for women in small towns and villages, who are much more afraid to speak up. Suddenly, they see a big crowd of women who don’t agree with current policies, and that’s very important.

Was anything achieved by the protests? Did the government make any concessions?

Their reaction was that they backtracked on some of their statements. Initially, Prime Minister Szydło and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), who is in fact ruling the country, came out in support of this anti-abortion law. But after all that happened they claimed that they had only expressed their private opinions. But essentially, they are just waiting for people to calm down and I assume they will try to pass the bill in the summer, during vacation time, when many people are away and there is less potential for mobilization.

But what needs to be emphasized is that we already have a very restrictive law in place. And what’s more, as a report published last week shows, women do not have access to legal abortion even in the three cases that are granted by law. In theory, women are legally allowed to terminate a pregnancy if their life is in danger, if the foetus is seriously damaged, or if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act. But in practice, that’s not the case. Hospitals don’t have procedures and doctors are not willing to carry them out. In fact, it’s very hard to get a legal abortion in the hospital in Poland. So the very restrictive law that we have now is not working. When the so-called compromise between the political representation and the church was passed in 1993, 1 300 000 signatures that opposed this bill were simply thrown out of the window. Everything happened behind women’s backs.

The protests have essentially demanded the preservation of the status quo in the form of what – as you said – is already quite a restrictive abortion law. What are the chances of creating a movement for the liberalization of the abortion law in Poland?

Opinion polls show that about 30% of the population are in favour of liberalization. But the problem is that many women are not brave enough to say that they support it, because they are afraid of the consequences and of being labelled as criminals. And it’s also because of education. For the past twenty years, we have had religion lessons in schools – and polls show that the most conservative group who are against abortion are youngsters aged between 18-24. These are people who have not yet experienced problems that might lead them to consider abortion – but in a few years’ time, many of these people, and especially women, will change their mind, because they may have an unwanted pregnancy. The results show that people who are more experienced, who may have had to face these issues in the past, are more tolerant, while the group who are really against are kids who just left school and haven’t had any sexual education, but instead had religioun lessons twice a week. They weren’t taught how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, instead they were taught to call embryos and foetuses a “conceived child” – this makes your imagination work!

So education is really successfully shaping the attitudes towards reproductive rights…

Absolutely, that’s a great success of the Catholic church, they really changed the mentality of the younger generation. That is why the current government focuses on education so much. Right now, they have taken history as their next big topic – they intend to rewrite history in order to suggest, for instance, that Poles never killed Jews, while unfortunately there were some who did kill their Jewish neighbours during WWII. The heroes of the famous Solidarity movement like Lech Wałęsa are accused of being communist agents and people who did nothing especially spectacular and brave are presented as heroes. They know what’s effective, that’s why they really care about education.

The lack of solidarity is generally a problem in Poland, in particular solidarity between the middle class and the working class . This is something that really went wrong during the transformation and it also affects the field of reproductive rights.

Does that mean that people who were educated under the previous regime are more likely to support a more liberal abortion law?

Women of older generations are much more open about abortion. The generation of our grandmothers are very candid in admitting if they had an abortion, for instance if they already had children and did not want any more. They don’t feel that makes them criminals, or they are not even aware of it. But on the other hand, women who lived during times when it was legal to have an abortion don’t think about this topic, because it wasn’t a problem for them. There’s definitely not enough solidarity – I think many more women from the older generation should go out into the streets, because they had this freedom to decide about their bodies and they made use of it. The lack of solidarity is generally a problem in Poland, in particular solidarity between the middle class and the working class. This is something that really went wrong during the transformation and it also affects the field of reproductive rights.

But there was a lot of international solidarity with the protests. Did that help in any way?

There was a lot of support, but it only reached women who are active on the internet. The women who really should have heard more about this didn’t – the public, so-called national television hardly mentioned the protests at all, and when it did, it framed them as protests attacking the First Lady, as the protesters were demanding that the President’s wife take a stand and support Polish women as previous First Ladies, even the conservative ones, had done in similar situations. She stayed silent. But what is even more shameful is that the European Parliament proposed to hold a debate on this issue, and the parliamentary group dominated by PO and PSL, the former governmental parties, was against it – and there will be no debate in the European Parliament because of them!

You would think this would be a chance for them to set themselves up against the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Yes, but this situation is also their fault. They were in power for eight years and they did nothing to get sexual education into schools, despite the fact that obligatory sexual education was part of the 1993 bill. But PO just ignored this. For these eight years, many organizations were constantly pressuring the government, which argued that they could not make sexual education obligatory, because some parents apparently just don’t want this – in other words parents don’t want their children to know how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and politicians respect it! As if children were not citizens who have constitutional rights to knowledge and safety just like adult citizens. PO and PSL are responsible for this situation, because they never gained real independence from the church. I hope they never regain power, because the difference between them and PiS in the field of women’s rights is negligible.

If the bill is passed, what is likely to happen?

Statistics suggest that there are between 100 000 and 150 000 women per year having abortions, and that one woman in four had an abortion during her lifetime in Poland, whether illegally in Poland or legally abroad, although official statistics claim that it is only about 1000 per year. There are two problems with this: first, informal mafia-like structures have developed around this business. And second, it disadvantages women on low incomes. The price for an abortion is between 3000 and 4000 zloty, which is about twice the amount a woman who works, let’s say, in a shop earns per month. This means that the middle classes and the privileged can get abortions, but regular people are left without any options.

The way forward would be for PO and PSL to step out in favour of a debate in the European Parliament on this topic. But what this shows is that, sadly, all these parties are in fact conservative and working against women. The only hope is that angry citizens active on the streets and on the internet won’t give up and keep protesting. I also hope that Catholic women in Poland will finally understand that when a priest tells people during mass that they should support this proposed law that aims to torture women, they can stand up and say: no, I don’t agree with this!


Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at A2larm.cz.