The Political Dimensions of the Female Body: Poland on Reproductive Health Rights

Saffy Mirghani

Europe is largely permissive of women’s right to abortion: most of its countries present no obstacles to women within their first trimester seeking to carry out the procedure, and access to abortion is typically based on the country’s prevailing societal outlook, as opposed to the stringent imperative of law. While several European countries stand as exceptions to the region’s progressive disposition – micro-states like Malta and the Vatican City enact severe restrictions while other states like the Republic of Ireland also maintain heavy limitations – of all Europe’s ex-communist countries, Poland possesses the strictest anti-abortion laws.

Currently in Poland, abortion is only permitted in one or more of three conditions: if the mother’s health is considered to be under threat, if the pregnancy results from rape and/or incest or if the foetus is predicted to have a severe abnormality. In recent years, politicians have even lobbied for some of these exceptions to be deemed insufficient for the right to claim for an abortion. The leader of Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński, has explicitly voiced the inflexibility of his party’s stance on women’s abortion rights in the country: “We will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name.”

While Kaczyński has voiced his disapproval of a total ban on abortion, it is clear that he supports absurdly tight controls on how woman conduct themselves in relation to their own bodies. He has been largely dismissive of a woman’s own personal inclinations in the matter, to the extent that he deems it necessary that women be persuaded of what is best for them. Yet it seems – to the chagrin of Kaczyński – that the women of Poland do not want to be convinced. In 2016, the rejection of a proposed bill that received 400,000 signatures to increase women’s abortion and contraceptive rights, as well as to improve sex education at schools, provoked a series of protests across 50 Polish cities.

As always, the virtually unconditional outlawing of an activity or substance either leads to the proliferation of the very same substance/activity under dubious conditions on the country’s black market or propels its citizens on a desperate search far from their home country. To this, abortion offers no exception. Around 1,000 legal procedures are reported in the country every year, with the estimated figure for all abortions per annum – including illegal ones – to be up to 100 times that figure. The town of Prenzlau in Germany, less than twelve kilometres from the border of Poland, is home to a clinic which sees 20 Polish women enter its doors every week.

Indeed, while the Polish ring-wing government has been tending towards a near-total ban on abortion, the country’s citizens have expressed a different inclination. The government’s latest efforts to further restrict women’s abortion rights materialised in the form of the ultimately unsuccessful 2016 outlaw bill, a socially regressive proposal to completely prohibit abortions in all cases, except for those in which the mother’s life is considered to be under threat. Shortly before the historic ‘Black Monday’ protests which developed in reaction to the proposal, a video was circulated online expressing Icelandic women’s support for the female-led Polish protests, harkening back to Iceland’s struggles nearly 30 years earlier when almost 90% of its women refused to attend their work commitments or engage in domestic chores in the name of calls for wage equality and more unbiased employment practises.

What is clear is that this issue is not one peddled by a small minority. The participation in Black Monday was overwhelming. The demonstrations were widely considered to constitute the largest protests in the country’s history. In Warsaw alone, well over 20,000 women and men congregated at the city’s historic Castle Square, a number dwarfed by the nationwide turnout of over 115,000 people. In an astonishingly optimistic development, three days after the cessation of the protests more than 80% of 428 Polish lawmakers voted against the bill, a veritable triumph for reproductive rights activists.

However, it would be a simplistic and unproductive perspective to maintain that all the nation’s women support the liberalization and relaxation of abortion rights in the country. Just as the issue is deeply contentious in the country as a whole – a largely religious nation in which nearly 90% of the population identify as Roman Catholic and over 35% of these believers attend Sunday church services – opinions on abortion rights certainly vary within the female population, particularly between generations.

This discrepancy is evidently exploited by a government’s whose progressively archaic stance on abortion rights, as well as its approach to other aspects of women’s reproductive health, strikes one as an effort on the part of its conservative politicians to make it enormously difficult for women to exercise self-determination with regard to their reproductive health in any capacity whatsoever.

In banning abortion except in a very limited number of circumstances and prohibiting access to prescription-free emergency contraception, Poland’s lawmakers are abstaining from aiding women with their reproductive rights. They are also rendering women’s circumstances even more difficult when burdened by an unwanted pregnancy, whether due to a lack of financial stability or emotional maturity, the knowledge of one’s inability to provide the child with a secure life or for any other personal reasons.

Certainly, a restriction of access to contraception leads to a higher demand for abortions, two methods that the government is fixated on curbing. It seems that many Polish politicians have strived to place the country’s women in an age-old, biblically-conceived bind: if a woman does not desire pregnancy she must abstain from intercourse, and if she engages in intercourse she must potentially – voluntarily or involuntarily – rear a child. This does not quite seem to align with our conceptions of the liberated, self-determining, twenty-first century European female.

This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the twenty-first century woman has little to do with the decision-making process involved in the passing of this sort of legislation. The World Bank has reported the proportion of seats held by women in the Polish National Parliament to be 28 percent and of the 17 members of the National Parliament’s ruling PiS party, only three of them are women.

Unconvincingly, the Polish government’s attempts to limit the sale of emergency contraceptives have been presented as an effort to safeguard women’s health by encouraging them to seek medical advice before using these substances which could ‘negatively impact’ their health. With an identically transparent argument frequently adopted in defence of anti-abortion legislation, what truly underlies this notion is the reasoning that a woman simply doesn’t know best, particularly when it comes to her own body.

While the soaring figures of illegal abortions gripping the country have done little to convince predominantly male lawmakers that it would be best to lend an ear to the very women affected by these legislative changes, the deafening voices of hundreds of thousands of protesters and petitioners across the country demanding to be heard have ultimately proven to be significantly harder to ignore.

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