UNRISD & Heinrich Boell Stiftung
Publication Date: 
September, 2009

The prestige and the influence of the Polish Church is closely linked to the role it played
historically when Poland was occupied by foreign countries throughout the 19th century.
It then appeared as the only centre of stability and resistance against the invaders, giving force to the equation: ‘Polish = Catholic’. The family was another symbol of Polish
resistance to foreign occupation coupled with the powerful symbol of the ‘Polish Mother’ (mother of God and of the nation). Under the communist regime, far from succeeding, the attempts of the government to discredit the Church and to play down its authority, on the contrary, enhanced its popularity. This became evident in the mass following of the independent trade union Solidarnosc, which also had links with the Church in the 1970s and 1980s. Both held very traditional views of women’s roles (as mother and wife) and took strongly conservative positions on moral values and on reproductive rights more specifically.

The post-communist era reinforced the power of the Church, among other things
with the introduction of courses on religion in schools which institutionalized its presence
within the educational system and gave priests the status of ordinary teachers. Such
changes went along with the deterioration of the status of women in the labour market
and within society more broadly, as is evident in women’s labour force participation and
unemployment rates, their confinement to domestic duties, and their very weak presence
within political bodies elected after the implosion of the communist system. One major
illustration of the reactionary trend towards women’s rights was the adoption in 1993 of
an act often named “Anti-abortion law” which followed broadly the bill issued in 1988
at the initiative of the Catholic Church (still under the communist rule) and which entailed
a quasi ban on abortion.

In 2007, the debate on abortion was re-opened with a new proposal put forth by
the ultra-conservative parties to implement a total ban on abortion. Even if the Church
took part in the discussion, its voice was not the most prominent one. Much of the discussion
took place among politicians and their parties. The Church officially defended
the status-quo. But towards the end of 2007, it intervened again more directly in the
public discussion by sending a letter to the Members of Parliament (the Sejm) defending
a ban on in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. Not only did the Church appear again at
the centre of public debate on reproductive rights but it also put this question again at
the centre of the battlefield on moral values. One can see in this an attempt by the
Church (weakened after the death of Pope John Paul II and also by accusations that
some of its key members had collaborated with the secret service during the socialist
period) to defend its public role in defining the limits of policy.

Interestingly, this reassertion by the Church of its power happens at a time when
the relation of Poles to the catholic dogma is weakening, above all in what concerns
sexuality and reproductive rights. But simultaneously the ability of the Church to turn
around the political debate remains strong. To garner electoral and public support politicians
tend to avoid controversial topics which are considered to be divisive in society,
and express a general commitment to the catholic dogma.

Hence even if religion plays a more limited role today in the everyday life of
Polish people, religious arguments remain strong, particularly on reproductive and sexual
rights which take a central place in the public debate on moral values. This explains
in part why women's groups, submitted to the pressure of public debate, have focused
much of their energy on reproductive rights for the past two decades and why their criticism
of persistent forms of gender discrimination has been less audible within society.

Given the centrality of reproductive rights in the battle waged by the Church to
assert its authority on Polish society over the past two decades, we have chosen to
broadly focus our analysis on this question, which is at the same time also central to
women’s autonomy.

Following this introduction, the first section will analyse the role and power of
the Church from a historical perspective. We then turn to women’s economic and political
status in Poland today. Section three provides a more detailed analysis of the debates
on reproductive rights and abortion, and the positions taken by various political actors.
In the final section we look at women’s groups and the role they have played in this debate.
The paper is based on document analysis embracing diverse aspects of the issue
and has been completed by interviews conducted in January 2008 with a diverse set of
actors, including deputies, journalists, and feminist activists and scholars.2

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