Coming out on abortion: a controversial act in conservative Poland

Two months after the Black Monday protest, which gathered a hundred thousand women to protest against a full abortion ban, Polish women are still shamed for getting abortions.

By Alison Bertho

Protesters show their discontent during the Black Protest in Warsaw towards the government lead by national-conservative Law and Justice party. "PIS say sorry and go fuck yourself" can be read on the sign. (Photo by Karolina Chudek)

Protesters show their discontent during the Black Protest in Warsaw towards the government lead by national-conservative Law and Justice party. “PIS say sorry and go fuck yourself” can be read on the sign. (Photo by Karolina Chudek)

 

POLAND – Murder is the word used by a majority of the Polish people for abortion, a surgical procedure to terminate an early pregnancy. It has become taboo in conservative Poland.

This vocabulary became the norm after a compromise between the Church and the state limited abortion to only three exceptions in 1993. Abortion is banned except in cases where the woman’s life is in danger, the fetus is irreparably damaged or the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

“Opponents to legal abortion were speaking this language way before, but it seemed odd to [the] general public” says Agnieszka Graff, adjunct professor in the American Studies Centers at the Warsaw University and Women Rights activist. “It became more common in the 90s, by 2000 it was almost universal, and now nobody seems to remember another way of talking.”

On November 26, at a feminist movement meeting in Warsaw, Barbara Labuda, former Polish ambassador and member of Congress of Women, spoke out against the rhetoric used by the Catholic Church in regards to abortion.

“[The] Church achieved a great propagandist success, presenting an abortion as a homicide, a fetus as a baby, the right to abortion and the civil right as a culture of death,” said Labuda, during this event. “And it caused such a remarkable decline in a support for the abortion right.”

Watch Barbara Labuda speech

However, the Church believes that if a child has been conceived it should be born and taken care of. In a country lead by a right-wing, national-conservative, and Christian democratic government, abortion is considered a sin.

“If you want to be a Catholic and practice Catholicism then you can’t kill and that is what abortion is, it is death,” says a Catholic religious Ursuline sister from Poland. “True Catholics have to follow the law of God.”

The nun concedes that the national law must be adjusted to the non-believers and she thinks that it is true believers who made the current law. Nevertheless, she states that the government should not allow everything.

 

Keeping Silent

Based on a 2013 CBOS Centre for Public Opinion Research study, the Federation for Women and Family Planning estimates that 5 million Polish women have had an abortion. This number equals to about one-third of adult Polish women.

Less than 2,000 abortions a year are performed legally, but women’s groups estimate that an average of 100 000 to 150 000 abortions are done illegally or abroad.

However, most women keep silent because of a fear of being judged by a society in which women are accused of killing their baby if they terminate a pregnancy.

“Women are shamed into silence, they don’t want to be victims,” says Elzbieta Korolczuk a sociology researcher at Södertörn University in Sweden and feminist activist.

Polish singer Natalia Przybysz recently revealed to Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels) magazine that she had an abortion. Her testimony resulted in public shaming.

“Natalia got completely backlashed, which shows how controversial abortion still is,” says Marta Habior film producer and feminist activist. “Polish women get abortion, whether it is abroad or underground, but they just don’t talk about it.”

For Habior, in order to stop public shaming more women like Natalia Przybysz need to come out.

“Coming out is a heroic act in Poland, because women who do come out know that they are going to be hated,” says Habior.

 

The fear behind the Black Monday protests

A 2014 CBOS opinion poll found that in 2013, 65 percent of Poles viewed abortion as unacceptable.

It thus came as a surprise for many that about 100 000 women took the streets across Poland on October 3, known as Black Monday, to protest against a bill for a full ban on abortion.

Poland’s existing abortion laws are already some of the strictest in Europe

But many women who joined the protest support the current law and do not wish for it to be liberalized. A research report published by the CBOS in October suggests that 62 percent of Poles want to keep the existing law.

Public opinion is largely consistent with the existing law as a CBOS opinion poll published in April shows.

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According to Graff, the reason why many women joined the protest last October was a fear of the possibility of imprisonment for having a miscarriage.

Pro-life defenders deny this argument, but Graff maintains that this would be the natural result, due to the aftermath of similar laws passed in the Central American country of El Salvador.

“When abortion is totally banned a lot of miscarriages are actually homemade abortions,” says Graff. “And if authorities really want to crack down on abortion, they end up persecuting women who have got miscarriages.”

 

Black Monday protests mark a change

“Girls just want to have fundamental Human Rights” (Photo by Karolina Chudek)

“Girls just want to have fundamental Human Rights” (Photo by Karolina Chudek)

For Graff, the Black Monday protests was primarily a wake up call to what it means to be a woman in Poland

“It showed many women the level of misogyny within the society,” says Graff.

Habior was one of those women.

“I was always aware but never active,” says Habior.

The activist says that the new civic bill scared her and she decided to act. She organized the Dignity March in June, the first organized protest, which paved the way to the Black Monday protest.

“What is wonderful is that many women who were not active before became active,” says Habior, “All of a sudden they call themselves feminist, they go out and protest, and they would have never done that before.”

According to the activist, because of the Black Monday protest women gained knowledge on how the 1993 compromise does not work. However, for pro-life defenders the compromise is not enough.

“The problem is that people do not know what abortion is and they do not think of the child as a human being,” says Anna Wiejak, journalist at Prawy.pl and activist for pro-life organization foundation SOS.

 

A Conservative Country

Catholicism plays a major role in Polish society’s view on abortion and according to Wiejak people’s opinion towards abortion did not change after the Black Monday protests.

“Poland is Catholic,” says Wiejak. “Polish people are pro-life first, and they have deep family traditions.”

Pro-life defenders organized counter-protests saying they wanted to defend the rights of unborn babies.

“People who are unborn need the change in the abortion law, they can’t go to the street,” says Wiejak. “So it would be honest to completely ban abortion.”

Although for Graff, the Black Monday protests were an awakening of the harshness of Catholic fundamentalism.

“In fact, the ultra conservative Catholics who wrote this bill are more extreme than the Church,” says Graff.

On November 21, in an apostolic letter, Pope Francis announced that he indefinitely gave Catholic priests power to give absolution to women who got abortion.

Wiejak thinks it is a good decision because women need support and mercy.

“Priests should teach people that it is not the person that should be condemned but the sin,” says Wiejak.

Sex Education is almost nonexistent in Polish schools

Just like abortion, sex talks are taboo in Poland. Sex education and contraception are avoided topics in schools.

By Alison Bertho

 

At just 16 years old Aleksandra Wesołowska took part in the Black Monday protest, but her plea was for better sex education.

“Our books ignore the topic of health, prevention and sexual rights,” says high-school student Wesołowska. “I am disappointed because in other European countries, sex educations lessons are open minded discussions about contraceptive and STDs preventions.”

“To be pro or against abortion, you first need the knowledge and understanding of the entire process,” says Marta Habior film producer and feminist activist. “But children are being taught about sexuality in church and not in biology class”.

The 1993 law on abortion obliged the government to introduce into schools classes on sexual health, including information on birth control and responsible procreation.

“The assumption is that if you educate women on how to get pregnant there would be fewer unwanted pregnancies,” says Agnieszka Graff, adjunct professor in the American Studies Centers at the Warsaw University and Women Rights activist. “But that is not the right-wing argument, and so they argue that sex education demoralize children.”

While pro-choice and feminist organizations think sex education is the way to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions, pro-life organizations think that it is the cause.

“The education about sexuality should be taught at home by the parents and not in schools,” says Anna Wiejak, journalist at Prawy.pl and pro-life activist for foundation SOS. “The main result of sex education in schools is the sexualization of children as teaching about sexual relations and contraception encourage children to try it.”

However, sex educators like Maria Cygan, a volunteer at Ponton, a sexual health organization affiliated with the Federation for Women and Family Planning, say it is absurd to think that educating people about sexuality would push them to do it more.

“Contraception is the source of the problem, educators and the government should tackle it,” says Cygan.