‘This is war’: The story behind Poland’s bid to ban abortion today

A new book traces religious and ‘traditional values’ networks in Poland and beyond. Now, amid COVID-19, they’re trying – again – to ban abortion

Lidia Kurasinska
14 April 2020, 9.52am
Protest in Warsaw against the proposed ban on sex education in schools, 16 October 2019
Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto/PA Images

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. Currently, this is one of only three legal grounds for terminating a pregnancy in Poland, which has 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 of them are 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 these kinds of protests are impossible today 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 women's 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.

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Law and Justice has also announced elections for next month. Suchanow contrasts this with what has happened in other countries, which have postponed elections because candidates 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. 

‘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 detailed and 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 the mainstream media’s attention on Muslim fundamentalists, Suchanow’s book identifies the threats that come from diverse Christian groups, including evangelicals, hardline Catholics and Orthodox movements. She argues that they have increasingly infiltrated society and 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. 

A masked nationalist burns a flare during Poland's Independence Day March on 11 November 2019
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

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 has interviewed 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 (WCF) network, which was founded after a meeting of ultra-conservative academics in Moscow in 1995. 

Last year, the WCF 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 Italy’s far-Right Lega party. The party’s leader, Matteo Salvini, gave a keynote speech at the Verona summit. 

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 that the WCF’s 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.

Unlike its summit in Verona, which was met with mass protests, the WCF has received warm receptions across eastern Europe, says Suchanow – 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 Tradition, Family, Property (TFP), a Catholic-inspired, ultra-conservative movement that first emerged in Brazil. Like the WCF, this network is not new, but Suchanow says its influence is growing – particularly in eastern Europe. 

According to Suchanow, in recent years Poland has become a launch pad for this network’s expansion across the region. She also looks at groups such as the ultra-conservative Ordo Iuris thinktank, which previously drafted a bill to ban abortion in Poland, and the Father Piotr Skarga Foundation. Both organisations appear to have been inspired by TFP.

The latter foundation reportedly helped to establish a group called Vigilare in Croatia, which has recently campaigned to overturn a constitutional court ruling that granted same-sex couples the right to foster children. Meanwhile, Ordo Iuris has 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 warned publicly about foreign interference in his country – and has criticised Vigilare as “an organisation controlled totally by foreign citizens, which is trying to change our constitution”.

‘An organisation controlled totally by foreign citizens, which is trying to change our constitution’

A third network examined by Suchanow is 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 see them as “lunatics” and to dismiss their demands for an ultra-conservative society. 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 “a very well-thought out strategy and very well-executed attacks.” 

Suchanow is not without hope, however, and points to the 2016 protests against Poland's restrictive abortion bill (the bill that has now been revived). 

“By looking after their rights, Polish women are standing up to the Kremlin’s influences,” Suchanow said. Ultimately, she hopes her book can help them to win the war. “How this story will unfold depends also on us.”

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