Reproductive rights: battleground of moral values

What are the implications for women's reproductive rights of the strong legacy of Catholicism acting as a marker of Polish nationhood and identity?
Jaqueline Heinen Stéphane Portet
23 October 2010

A significant illustration of the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland was the adoption of an act often named the “Anti-abortion law” in 1993, which broadly followed the bill issued in 1988 at the initiative of the Church -still under communist rule. This legislation included a quasi ban on abortion with few exceptions authorized by the law, but difficult to implement in practice due to the lack of co-operation of doctors and hospitals. The outcome of these restrictions is that tens of thousands of women get clandestine abortions, either in Poland or abroad - some 150.000 a year according to the estimates of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. In 2007 abortion became the subject of intense public controversy, once again ,when a proposal for a total ban on abortion was put forward by the League of Polish Families (LPR), supported by members of the other ruling conservative party Law and Justice (PiS). Although the Church, in this instance officially defended the status quo, it assumed a more interventionist role when at the end of the same year, it sent a letter to the parliamentarians defending a ban on in vitro fertilization procedures.

Nowadays, although 93% of the Poles declare themselves as Catholics and believers, there are significant contradictions between discourse and practice in private life. Polish Catholicism often appears as pro forma observance specifically in the field of reproductive rights where Catholic dogma is frequently watered down. Most Poles disagree with or do not follow religious rules in relation to sex; nearly two thirds think that modern contraceptives should be available; and 80% of young people think that priests should not dictate their sexual behavior. The number of “underground” abortions also attests to breaches of the dogma. The overwhelming majority of Poles today favour the separation of Church and the State, even among members of conservative organizations.

Nevertheless, supporting the separation of Church and State does not mean that Catholic doctrine is not given pride of place in public debates: society is de facto construed and perceived as Catholic, by voters and by politicians alike. Although religion plays a more restricted role than previously in the everyday life of Polish people, religious arguments remain central to the political debate and reproductive, and sexual rights act as catalysts of the battle on moral values.

The politics of non-confrontation: political parties and the Church

The prominence of the Church in the political debate explains why the right-wing parties mentioned above adopted positions even more extreme than the Church concerning reproductive rights. Interviews conducted with a number of known players on the Polish political scene in 2007 and 2008, revealed that most of the women representatives the authors of this article met , especially those critical of the right leaning governments were broadly of the opinion that ‘male politicians in Poland are more papist than the Pope’. Most insisted that many of the key representatives of the Democratic Left Alliance, often tended to avoid any direct conflict with the Church for fear of losing the support of what they consider to be the most numerous social group, the Catholics. It is little wonder, then, that right-wing parties mobilize religious arguments as political capital.

The de facto quasi total ban on abortion clearly demonstrates that Polish democracy discriminates against women. Indeed, the law prohibiting termination of pregnancy was adopted despite the fact that polls and surveys carried out in connection with the bill supported by the Catholic Church showed repeatedly that, according to the period, the majority or the near majority of the public, especially women, were hostile to legislation depriving women of reproductive choice, including the right to abortion.

This goes some way to explain why women’s groups that have focused much of their energy on reproductive rights over the past two decades, encounter such stiff resistance. They are subjected to multiple pressures and their protests against gender discrimination are hardly audible.

A politicized private sphere: the case of in vitro fertilization

By opposing women's control over their fertility, in the name of protecting the ‘unborn child’, the Polish political authorities are claiming the right to legitimately intervene in the private lives of women and to subordinate their bodies to a particular conception of life. This was illustrated by the debate on in vitro fertilization launched in 2008 and prompted by a ‘Letter of the Bishops’ issued by the Catholic Church.[1] The Church tried to impose its views on the question of the right to life of the ‘unborn child’ from its very ‘conception’ against the dominant opinions of Poles. Once again, women’s rights to bodily integrity and self-determination were pushed aside with impunity.

Yet again, the Church got members of Parliament to take its proposal forward. The debate over who has the right to encroach upon couples’ decisions which are deemed to be private is still going on, dividing the political class, including the ruling party, Civic Platform.

Despite the country’s efforts to restore civic rights, that were denied or effectively emptied of any real meaning under the Soviet regime, the denial of women's personal liberties in the reproductive field demonstrates that ‘citizenship’ has a strong gendered dimension.

The European Union: active reformer or passive observer?

Although the process of European accession has put Poland on the spot over a range of issues relating to equal rights, it has not yet brought about any palpable change in the arena of reproductive rights. Indeed, given the obligation to implement the acquis communautaire fully, Poland has modified its legislation on paper to create greater equality between the sexes. However, these changes (e.g. on parental leave open to men without restrictions, or on women’s access to professional activities until then closed to them) were treated as a formality made necessary by treaty obligations and did not involve a rupture with the conservative conception of gender supported by the Polish government. The Polish Committee for European integration made clear that the aim was to make the Polish law conform to European demands without modifying fundamental aspects of the “gender contract”, in particular concerning the anti-abortion law. Furthermore, the effects of the integration process are limited by the weakness of tools of implementation at the disposal of the EU which has no competence to intervene in the realm of moral values and reproductive rights, and thus has no concrete instruments (such as sanctions) to enforce its standards.

Nonetheless, although the impact of the European integration process is very limited in practice, European standards constitute a definite point of reference for Polish non-governmental organizations defending women’s rights. EU accession in 2004 has stimulated the social and political activity of feminist organizations that emerged in the early 1990s. In this respect, Europeanization has offered powerful leverage for the claim for a more egalitarian, or at least less discriminatory society, encouraging women’s groups to intervene on various topics (employment, domestic violence, etc.) in the public debate. Nevertheless, the intense political debate on gender equality that characterized the years between 1997-2004 gave way to a quasi total silence as if women’s rights had become a non-issue.

As far as reproductive rights are concerned, the statements of the European Union, above all of the European Court of Justice, as well as the impact of international bodies such as the United Nations, have been the main sources of legitimation for the claims of women’s organizations, such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning. that are struggling against the anti-abortion law. The Federation drew particular attention to the resolution of the Council of Europe passed in 2008 on ‘access to safe and legal abortion in Europe’ which is exactly in line with the “free choice” organizations in Poland. The role of Europe also appeared quite pivotal in the famous ‘Alicja Tysiąc case’ in 2007, when the European Court of Human Rights condemned Poland for having denied Tysiąc the right to undergo a legal abortion.

The main political reaction to this decision was to, first, challenge the decision and secondly to change Polish law in order to make this kind of legal claim impossible. The Church condemned the intrusion of the EU into what, in its view, should be regarded as a national issue.

Europeanisation, however, is not only a legal or institutional process. It also entails greater international mobility of people and ideas. The fact that many Poles, both women and men, migrate to countries where the legal provisions on abortion are more liberal and where gender relations are more egalitarian, might open up new avenues for social change. In the case of abortion the opening of borders also offers new opportunities for women and couples to exercise their reproductive rights — at least for those who have the economic means to seek these options. Such openings may either reinforce the status quo (as was the case in Ireland for example), or alternatively, legitimise other paths leading to the redefinition of the social compact concerning reproductive rights.





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