Who Controls Women's Bodies? Understanding Abortion Laws in Poland with Elżbieta Korolczuk

People in Poland have been protesting new abortion laws for more than two months. Despite the fact that Poland already had some of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union, in October the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that terminating pregnancies due to fetal defects violates Poland’s constitution.

There were 1,100 legal abortions performed in the country last year; 97 percent were because of fetal defects. That means that when the law is published, abortions will be almost completely banned in Poland. There will be only two cases when a woman will be allowed to legally abort – when there is a threat to women’s health or incest/rape has occurred.

“We have to challenge this notion that it is the state or the church that decide for women on those most intimate, often most important issues in their lives,” says Elżbieta Korolczuk, sociologist and associate professor at Warsaw University in Poland and Södertörn University in Sweden. In this conversation we discuss the roots of restrictions to women’s reproductive rights in Poland and their relationship to the church as well as the long-term impact on society.

What would you say are the reasons why Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the EU?

Basically, you could have one word, which is “the church.” Studies have shown that in 1993, around 80-90 percent of women were against any restrictions. They were for legal, free, and accessible abortion. But then the new democratically elected government and the Catholic church believed that challenging the Communist regime was something that would allow Poland to democratize because during that time an abortion was legal and accessible. So it had both the symbolic value as a sign of cutting off the past, but it also had a very practical meaning because it was a sign of a change in the gender order.

Agnieszka Graff, a Polish scholar, published a very interesting piece in the 1990s. In it, she argued that the question of abortion was simply a part of the broader change in which communism, under which women at least on the political level were considered equal to men, had to be challenged. Women’s bodies were the space where this challenge took place. The idea was that we had to re-establish democracy and with it re-establish the traditional patriarchal gender order. Basically, it was a payoff to the church, which supposedly helped Poland to fight the Communist regime. John Paul II, the pope, who was a key figure at that time, was very keen on the question of abortion. So Polish people enacted this payoff with the bodies of Polish women.

Elżbieta Korolczuk during a protest in Warsaw on the 26th of October, 2020. Personal archive
Elżbieta Korolczuk during a protest in Warsaw on the 26th of October, 2020. Personal archive

What consequences do strict abortion laws have on society now?

Quite a lot of women, around 80,000-100,000 per year, seek abortion abroad or through underground abortion services. But the consequences are much broader in the sense of changing people’s views on who actually can control women’s bodies, who decides. So now, around 30-50% of people are of the opinion that abortion should be available and legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

But still, we have to challenge this notion that it is the state or the church that decide for women on those most intimate, often most important issues in their lives. In that sense, the consequences include the quality of health care that women receive. We have three exceptions from the ban, the first of which is rape or incest, basically a criminal act. Another is the serious threat to women’s health and life, and the third is serious fetal defects.

We have had several cases in which even though women have fulfilled the criteria for legal abortion, they could not obtain it. For example, the case of a 14-year-old girl from Lublin, who was raped by a man. She was seeking abortion, and there was a lot of pressure from the local parish, from anti-choice groups to not allow her to undergo abortion under the pretense that she was too young to decide for herself. And they were trying to revoke the parental rights of her mother because she was helping her to obtain an abortion.

Another case is of a woman who was mistreated at the hospital and had an infection, but the doctors didn’t really want to help her under the pretense that all she wanted was an abortion. Which wasn’t true because she was a young person who was perfectly happy with having a child. But because of this notion, that she is not the one who decides, she was denied treatment and she died. Unfortunately, the case went to court and the court decided that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the doctors. So we already had those cases with at least one woman dying because of this law, even though in this case she would qualify for help under the current law. That shows the cruelty and the lack of proper health care for pregnant women in Poland.

And it means that these restrictions lead to illegal and unsafe methods of abortion?

Basically yes. Although right now most cases are so-called medication abortions, which are done with the help of pills. They are quite safe and there are usually very few side effects. In that sense, we are far away from this kind of back-alley abortions in the interwar period or during the 1950s in the United States, where women were using dangerous tools. Those abortions were very often botched and women were dying or were impaired for the rest of their lives.

“As usual, the weakest, the most vulnerable, are the most affected”

The deal between the church and the state is that the state basically disallows women from making decisions about their bodies. But the state doesn’t really do anything, for example, to lower the number of illegal abortions. So what we have now is a kind of hypocrisy.

It’s important to add that you can have an abortion in Poland as long as you have money and as long as you have contacts and people who will help you. That means that the most affected are women who are poor, who live in small cities, who cannot trust anybody to help them with this. As usual, the weakest, the most vulnerable, are the most affected.

It’s not the first attempt of the government to tighten abortion laws in Poland and people’s reaction to it. For example, in 2016 the government tried to ban abortions completely, but after big protests the law was withdrawn. Is this time different?

Protests against strict abortion laws started as early as in the 1990s. In 1993 over a million signatures were gathered for a national referendum. Those signatures were basically thrown into the garbage. Over the last three decades, there have been protests and demonstrations. I’ve been involved in organizing such protests for the last twenty years. But what happened in 2016 was the situation where those protests went mainstream. So instead of a small group of women protesting, you would have 200,000 women on the streets in different places. That was the moment where a lot of women realized that this government could really introduce a total ban. At that time the idea was to put women in prison for undergoing abortion for up to five years. They realized that this government doesn’t really care about them – their views, their bodies, their safety.

I think what’s new is the fact that the people protesting are mostly young people in their teens and early twenties. I would say that you have a case in which there is a growing frustration around the abortion law but also the general direction that this government is taking. Because many young people say that they don’t want to leave, they don’t want to emigrate, but they feel they might have to because the country is becoming more and more authoritarian. That there is very little space for young people to really function, there are a lot of restrictions around their freedom – their freedom of conscience, their freedom of speech, their freedom of expressing their identity, sexuality and so on. So we have a situation where the youngest generation is the most progressive, open, and tolerant.

But at the same time, they are not listened to and are under pressure from both the church and the educational system because the changes that were introduced by the current government include many changes in the educational system, in which there is much more patriotic, religious education and much more pressure to conform. I think that this is something that is really stifling for the young generation, that they feel that the older generation is actually stealing their future. In a sense, [the older generation is] building a world which is not welcoming for young people and which is at odds with their values, needs, and views. This is a more, I would say, generational phenomenon now, which reflects a huge amount of anger and anxiety from young people who can’t see a place for themselves in this country.

Do more people want to have more liberal abortion laws now? Are there any changes in Polish society in regard to this question?

Yes, it has been changing during the last couple of years. The number of people who would like the law to be liberalized is growing. Of course, opinion polls can be really misleading, because it really depends on how you pose a question. Ultra-conservative organizations conduct polls in which they ask “Do you think that human life should be protected from the moment of conception?” Of course, if you pose a question like this, you will have 60-70% of people saying “Yes, sure, why not?”

But if you ask people “Do you think that you or your friend or your daughter that is pregnant and is in a difficult situation should have the right to make decisions about their body?” Again, 60-70% of people say “Yes, I think that she should have this right.” But even if you look at the opinion polls that are done by the major state opinion poll center, you can see that the percentage of people who are in favor of legal and free abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy has grown around 10% during the last couple of years. In that sense, you can see that people are realizing the real consequences of the current law.

Especially among the younger generation – this is the real chasm. The younger generation is much more liberal. The current protests signal a huge change when it comes to the position of the church. A lot of those protests included slogans and banners that openly and clearly attacked the church. There were protests in the churches and in front of the churches, something that was almost unheard of before.

And there is also a study, a PEW report from last year, which shows that the younger Polish generation is the generation that is secularizing the fastest compared to other countries in Europe. So there is a big gap between their parents, grandparents, and themselves. That means that, in a way, the church is finally paying the price for the pedophilia scandals, for the financial scandals, for being a political institution, for engaging in political shenanigans, for pushing so much to have even more power that now the younger generation is saying “No” to the authority of the church.


What possible changes could these protests bring?

One change has already happened. It is truly a cultural revolution for the young people because they realize that they are not alone. These views are shared by a huge number of their peers. This is the moment where you have very different groups, for example, young urban youth and people with lower education from smaller cities getting together and realizing that they are part of the same generation, part of the same group. That can have quite important consequences in the future.

Of course, the question is “Is it happening now or is it something that was happening for some time?” Because if you look, for example, at the youth engagement in voting in elections, you can see a steady growth during the last couple of years. During the presidential election this year, youth went to the polls in record numbers. The problem is that, as in many other countries, there are much fewer young people than people over 50-60. So even though they went in record numbers, they couldn’t outvote those who were voting for President Duda. But it is clearly a growing political power, a group of people who realizes that they are a political subject. This is a long-term and really important change.

“In these protests I finally felt that I was a part of the majority”

But at the same time, it is very difficult to predict what will happen in the immediate future because, as you know, the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal has not been published, so clearly they have no idea what to do with this situation. They out-tricked themselves.

There are quite a few different scenarios. One is it that they will publish it, the law will go into effect, and the situation will evolve from there. Another is that they will not publish it, we will have a sort of legal limbo, the protests will continue, and maybe another type of law will be introduced. The situation with COVID-19 in Poland is also very concerning. Approval ratings for the current government and the president have gone down around 10% during the last two months. People are really fed up with what is going on, and that’s why you could see people joining the women’s protests such as people working in agriculture or bus drivers or people owning restaurants and so on. It seems that there is a huge crisis ahead of us and the question of abortion is just one element of the whole issue the current government has to face.

There were quite a few protests and demonstrations that I’ve attended and I always felt a part of the minority. I always felt that we were a small group compared to the rest of the population. In these protests I finally felt that I was a part of the majority. That if I have the pin of the strike or a flag with me or something, an older man would approach me and say like “Oh great, you are doing a great job. Well done.” And that kind of feeling signals a huge change in the future.

“I think, I feel, I decide”. A protest in Warsaw on the 28th of October, 2020. ©Elżbieta Korolczuk
“I think, I feel, I decide”. A protest in Warsaw on the 28th of October, 2020. ©Elżbieta Korolczuk

You mentioned that these protests are happening not only because of abortion laws being tightened but also because of other decisions made by the leading Law and Justice party. Could you describe what you see as the other threats to human rights in Poland now?

The LGBT community has been a target of the current government for quite a long time now. There have been violence and outrageous statements made by those in power. Poland's most prominent anti-abortion figure, Kaja Godek, who was the architect of the anti-choice law, has submitted another proposal now, which would effectively ban organizing pride demonstrations. Which is basically about the basic human right to protest, to be visible, to have the freedom of speech.

There has also been a growing number of violent acts against ethnic minorities. We don’t have many people from abroad in Poland, but there have been acts of violence directed at them.

Furthermore, the extreme right-wing groups are openly supported by the government, the police forces and so on. In that sense, you can see a growing authoritarian regime that basically wants to get rid of anyone who doesn’t really support them, who doesn’t fit their description of who “the real Pole” should be. And that’s what young people are reacting to. They want to live in a democracy.

Are there any changes in what people think about the church now? Do they raise more questions about its role?

Definitely. First of all, we had several huge cases, reports, and documentaries which have shown the extent to which the clergy has committed hideous acts of pedophilia and the extent to which they were protected and covered by the clergy. Personally, I find it quite bizarre that there are still people who don’t know about it, because there have been reports on that for several years back, but this has changed a lot. So you have a huge wave of distrust against the church.

“You have to get rid of the church as a political player before you can assure women their own rights”

In particular, a month ago, a private TV station published a documentary which showed and documented the fact that Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz, who was a close friend and aid of John Paul II, the Polish pope, has been involved in covering up pedophilia scandals. Millions of people watched that and millions of people basically are very angry with the church. For example, people don’t want their children to attend religious education. On many occasions they don’t want their children to be involved with the church because they are afraid and, I would say, rightly so, that if there is a priest who is a criminal he would be protected and not their children. In that sense, there is a huge wave of distrust.

There is this procedure called apostasy, where you officially cut ties with the church. The number of people googling this was so great that it was one of the top Google searches in Poland during the first week of the protests. So, obviously, this is a huge crisis of the power of the church as a moral authority, as a political player, and as an organization and institution which holds authority in Poland for at least three decades now. I think that we really see the power of the church crumbling now. Which is usually the first step to introducing laws defending women’s reproductive rights as we could see, for example, in Ireland. You have to get rid of the church as a political player before you can assure women their own rights.

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Elżbieta Korolczuk is an Associate Professor in Sociology at Warsaw University in Poland and Södertörn University in Sweden. Her research interests involve social movements, civil society, politics of reproduction and anti-gender campaigns.