Despite coronavirus lockdowns, Poland’s parliament is set to discuss a controversial abortion bill this week. Along with criminalising sex education, it would ban abortion in cases of severe foetal anomaly, one of only three current legal grounds under one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Reproductive rights activists have accused the ruling Law and Justice party of “exploiting the current health crisis to undermine women’s and young people’s safety”. A petition to reject the bill has now been signed by 170 MPs, MEPs and senators from 24 European countries, but only nine from Poland.
Previous attempts to pass similar bills were met by mass protests including a nationwide women’s strike in 2016 and further demonstrations in 2017. But today these protests are impossible under coronavirus emergency measures.
“The government is taking advantage of the lockdown to push its bill,” said Klementyna Suchanow, one of the key organisers of the 2016 strike and the author of a new book that delves deep into the global networks of ultra-conservative groups that have long campaigned to ban all abortions.
The ruling party has also announced elections next month. Suchanow contrasts this with other countries that have postponed elections as candidates from other parties can’t currently campaign or meet with voters. Because of this, she warns: “Democratic elections in Poland are impossible”.
Of the revival of abortion restrictions she says: "They want us to think it's about religion and moral values but, in reality, it's all about power”. And Suchanow knows this story better than most. She’s spent years tracing threats to women’s rights in her country and beyond, recently detailed in a new book.
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“They want us to think it's about religion and moral values but it's all about power”
“This is war: Women, fundamentalists, and the new Middle Ages”, published last month, is dense, frightening but sometimes uplifting. It offers a close-up look at coordinated threats to women’s rights, but also women’s resistance.
In contrast to mainstream media attention on Muslim fundamentalists, the threats in Suchanow’s book come from diverse Christian campaigns including evangelicals, hard-line Catholics, and Orthodox movements. Increasingly, she argues they have infiltrated and have even “become the power structures”.
She looks at the role of religious and ultra-conservative civil society – and states – in trying to block or roll back rights that women won after decades of struggle. Their targets include: abortion, contraception, sex education, and any form of love outside of heterosexual marriage with children.
Russia is a key character in her book which shows how that state has increasingly positioned itself as a defender of ‘traditional values’. Over the past decade, Suchanow argues, Russia’s communist internationalism has been replaced by a far-right, religious fundamentalist version.
One of the people she interviews is Jolanta Darczewska, a Polish expert in security and eastern Europe, who agrees that ‘values’ campaigns aren’t always what they seem. “We think that what we’re dealing with are religious activities, but in reality, these might be political operations of another state”.
openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash investigative project follows the international networks, finances, strategies and impacts of many similar campaigns. These include the World Congress of Families network, which was founded after a 1995 Moscow meeting of ultra-conservative academics.
Last year, the World Congress of Families held its global summit in Verona, Italy, ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections at which far-right parties aimed for record wins. Some succeeded, including the Italian far-right Lega, whose leader Matteo Salvini gave a keynote speech in Verona.
In an interview, Suchanow criticised such networks as anti-democratic and opaque. "They cannot be held responsible in any way”, she said, and yet they aim to influence laws and policies. "And once they enter the bloodstream, they will always side with the far right and help advance their interests".
Suchanow notes how the World Congress of Families’ Russia representative is the well-connected Alexey Komov, a business associate of the ‘Orthodox Oligarch’ Konstantin Malofeev who is close to Vladimir Putin and is under international sanctions for allegedly financing Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
In contrast to this network’s 2019 summit in Italy, where it was met with mass protests, Suchanow notes how the World Congress of Families has received warm receptions across eastern Europe – including from local governments in Poland in 2007, Hungary in 2017, and Moldova in 2018.
“Once they enter the bloodstream, they will always side with the far right and help advance their interests”
Another network that Suchanow tracks is called Tradition, Family, Property (TFP). It is a Catholic-inspired ultraconservative movement that first emerged in Brazil. Like the World Congress of Families, this network is not new but Suchanow says its influence is growing – particularly in eastern Europe.
According to Suchanow, Poland has in recent years become a launchpad for this network’s expansion across the region. She also looks at groups like the ultra-conservative Ordo Iuris thinktank that previously drafted a bill to ban abortion in Poland, and an organisation called the Father Piotr Skarga Foundation, both of which appear to have been inspired by TFP.
In Croatia, this Foundation reportedly helped to establish a group called Vigilare which has recently campaigned to overturn a constitutional court ruling that granted same-sex couples the right to foster children. Ordo Iuris has meanwhile also set up a Croatian branch, called Ordo Iuris Hrvatska.
These cross-border movements have caused local concern. Croatian MP Bojan Glavašević told Suchanow that he has publicly warned about foreign interference in his country – and has criticised Vigilare as “an organisation, controlled totally by foreign citizens, that tries to change our constitution”.
“An organisation, controlled totally by foreign citizens, that tries to change our constitution”
A third network that Suchanow looks at is called Agenda Europe, which aims to “restore the natural order” of societies – another variation on the “traditional values” theme. She concludes that the spread of these movements is an urgent threat to democracy and human rights around the world.
It’s a mistake, she said, to dismiss their demands for ultra-conservative societies and see them as “lunatics”. And it’s no coincidence that similar campaigns against women’s and LGBTIQ rights flare-up in different countries.
“They see it as a war and they’re absolutely serious about what they’re doing”, she says, with “very well-thought-out strategy and very well-executed attacks”.
Suchanow is not without hope, however, and points to the 2016 protests organised against the restrictive abortion bill that has now been revived.
“By looking after their rights, Polish women are standing up to the Kremlin’s influences”, Suchanow celebrates. Ultimately, she hopes her book can help them to win the war. “How this story will unfold depends also on us”.