Pro-choice ‘Black Monday’ protester in Krakow, October 2016 | Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
On 3 October 2016, despite pouring rain, tens of thousands of women joined ‘Black Monday’ street protests across Poland, demonstrating against a proposed near-total ban on abortion.
The proposal that triggered these protests would have criminalised abortion in almost all cases (including rape and incest). The only exception would have been if the woman’s life was at risk.
Ultimately, this proposal did not pass. But the publicity it generated helped to shed light on the organisation behind it: the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, which has not given up its anti-abortion fight.
Earlier this year, Błażej Kmieciak, from the institute’s bioethics centre, said that women planning to have abortions should be forcibly placed in mental health units.
This organisation was established just five years ago by founders who say they were inspired by a controversial, transnational Catholic fundamentalist movement called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP).
Since then, Ordo Iuris has rapidly infiltrated the Polish state, on a seemingly relentless quest to ban abortion under all circumstances. It has also lobbied against anti-discrimination education in schools.
Several Ordo Iuris proposals have been picked up by public offices, and at least three of its board members have held political positions in Poland.
There are signs that the group plans to lobby internationally too, at the United Nations. Its allies include the global branch of a US ‘Christian legal army’ with whom it’s advocated against abortion and same-sex unions.
“Ordo Iuris is a group of well-educated but conservative lawyers,” said Polish women’s rights activist Katarzyna Ueberhan, “trying to influence the current, conservative government… [with] a sort of ‘moral blackmail’.”
At the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, Neil Datta said it’s an example of “an anti-human rights organisation using democratic processes to undermine human rights”.
‘An anti-human rights organisation using democratic processes to undermine human rights’
Since 1993, abortion has been restricted in Poland to cases of rape or incest (as confirmed by a public prosecutor), when a woman’s health or life is at risk, or where there are severe and irreversible foetal disorders.
Amid these restrictions, 100,000-150,000 Polish women travel abroad every year to access abortion services, in particular to private clinics in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany.
Ordo Iuris’s proposed reform, submitted to parliament in 2016, would have tightened the law even further. Unless the woman’s life was in danger, it called for abortions to be punishable with prison sentences.
The group’s proposal was submitted to parliament as a ‘popular initiative’ after it collected more than 450,000 signatures in its favour. The Catholic Church supported it, as did the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
The PiS chairman said the reform would ensure that, even in “very difficult pregnancies, where the child has no chance of surviving”, women give birth so that “the child can be christened and buried and have a name”.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS party chairman, November, 2017 | NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
Ordo Iuris did not give up when this reform failed to pass in 2016.
The following year, it called for increased prosecution of people who assist women to access abortions outside the law’s restricted provisions, saying that they should be punished with up to three years in prison.
The national prosecutor’s office marked the group’s recommendations “for information and use” and forwarded them to regional prosecutors – though it later clarified that they did not constitute official guidelines.
Ordo Iuris has also encouraged pharmacists, with leaflets and free legal aid, to claim ‘conscientious objection’ rights and refuse to sell contraception.
This year, Ordo Iuris submitted a proposal to explicitly grant foetuses independent rights to medical treatment – which was widely interpreted as another attempt to introduce a total ban on abortion.
Although this has not been taken forward by the government, Kmieciak from Ordo Iuris’s bioethics centre told 50.50 that the organisation would remind the health ministry and patients rights officials about this point “on a regular basis”.
Ordo Iuris has further targeted education in schools related to women’s and LGBTIQ rights, hate speech and what it calls the World Health Organization’s “highly controversial” recommended sex education.
After a meeting with the institute in March, an education ministry spokesperson said it “would like to remind headmasters […] to obtain positive feedback from parents” on such activities in schools.
This caused uproar among some education workers. “Ordo Iuris is invigilating schools and intimidating headmasters,” said Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska from the University of Adam Mickiewicz.
Last year, the education ministry scrapped obligations on schools, introduced in 2015, to conduct anti-discrimination education. Ordo Iuris claimed this as “the first success” of their ‘Protect the Children’ campaign.
Such requirements didn’t reflect the primary role of families (and the “supporting role of schools”) in children’s upbringing, the group argued, and challenged their “freedom of conscience, religion and conviction”.
‘Ordo Iuris is invigilating schools and intimidating headmasters’
“After 45 years of communism, there were no conservative think tanks, in particular legal organisations, operating in Poland – except for a few,” said Tymoteusz Zych from Ordo Iuris. “We filled this gap.”
Zych is one of several Ordo Iuris board members who have also received significant political appointments. In January, he was appointed to a new state body overseeing support for civil society groups.
Previously, in 2015, Aleksander Stępkowski was appointed under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For three months, he was simultaneously president of Ordo Iuris’s board.
Jerzy Kwaśniewski, the current president of the board, is on the government’s monitoring team for prevention of domestic violence. He previously claimed that punishing women for having abortions is a “global standard”.
In 2014, Ordo Iuris also helped the (then opposition) PiS party to draft a complaint claiming that Polish anti-domestic violence law is unconstitutional as it allows “excessive involvement of the government” in family life.
‘The institute’s political influence has grown dramatically since its founding just five years ago’
The institute’s political influence has grown dramatically since its founding just five years ago – and despite its links to controversial international and transnational ultra-conservative movements.
Ordo Iuris was established in 2013 by the Father Piotr Skarga Foundation, which provided it with initial funding of 50,000 Polish zloty (£10,000).
This foundation was in turn established by the Father Piotr Skarga Association for Christian Culture, known for its emotionally charged campaigns for donations to fight ‘evil forces’ in Poland.
The association’s fundraising letters have often featured religious, Catholic references. But it has had a fraught relationship with church institutions; in 2008, the Krakow Diocese ruled out any links with the group.
On its website, the association says it was “inspired” by the Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) network of Catholic fundamentalists, founded in the 1960s in Brazil by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a “crusader of the 20th century”.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (centre) at a TFP event in São Paulo, Brazil | P.P.Pyres/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved
In the 1980s, TFP was allegedly involved in an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II (allegations that it has denied). A 1985 report from Brazilian bishops described its “esoteric character” and “fanaticism”.
After de Oliviera’s death in 1995, the group appears to have split into two. One part, a vocal critic of Pope Francis, kept the TFP name.
The other, Heralds of the Gospel, has been under Vatican investigation since 2017 over alleged cult worship and exorcism practices. “These are outdated accusations,” the Heralds said.
Zych from Ordo Iuris said there is “no connection” between the Heralds and TFP, “an important conservative social movement” with supporters in countries including Chile, the Philippines and Mozambique.
Notably, the Father Piotr Skarga Association, TFP and Ordo Iuris have almost identical branding – the logos of all three feature a golden lion.
‘Crusaders of the 20th century’
Ordo Iuris is also an allied organisation of ADF International, the global arm of the US ‘Christian legal army,’ Alliance Defending Freedom, which supports opponents of sexual and reproductive rights around the world.
Together, the groups intervened in 2015 against a proposal for Romanian courts to recognise same-sex unions concluded abroad. They have also worked together on advocacy for religious freedom protections.
In early 2018, they and other conservative groups wrote to the UN’s Human Rights Committee and, among other things, claimed that “limited access to abortion has a positive effect on lower maternal mortality rates.”
ADF International representatives have spoken at Ordo Iuris conferences, including a recent forum co-organised by the institute on “fundamental constitutional issues” including legal protections for families.
At the event were also high-ranking judicial, science and education officials. Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president, said he hoped the conference would support “legal order and a fair social order in Poland and the world”.
In 2017, Ordo Iuris obtained “special consultative status” at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Other ultra-conservative organisations have used this accreditation to lobby internationally.
Although the profile and reach of Ordo Iuris have undoubtedly grown, in Poland women are fighting back against its ultra-conservative ideas.
Tens of thousands of people protested in March 2018 as another Ordo Iuris proposal – to prevent women from terminating pregnancies due to severe and irreversible foetal anomalies – was discussed in parliament.
It’s unlikely to be the last time they take to the streets.
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