A Polish Perspective on Women, Peace and Security: No Progress Without Reproductive Rights

20 May 2020   ·   Antonina Lewandowska

Reproductive rights in Poland are facing renewed attacks and old problems: a draft bill wants to tighten abortion regulation; doctors are denying care. Measures for fighting the backlash include pushing for comprehensive sex education, providing contraception, and integrating reproductive care into public health services. There will be no gender equality without reproductive rights.

In 2016, Polish women roared with fury.

On a cold and rainy October day that would come down in history as “Black Monday,” thousands of people took to the streets and protested a proposed total ban on abortion.

In the lead up to these events, the Polish government had been discussing a draft bill that would alter the legal situation around abortion. This draft bill, prepared by ultra-conservative fundamentalist Catholic organisations, had gained the attention of both parliamentarians and the media. Appropriately called “Stop abortion,” it aimed to practically ban abortion in Poland altogether – tightening the already severe limits to accessing the procedure, which was (and still is) illegal with three exceptions:

  • When the woman's life or health is endangered by the continuation of the pregnancy,
  • When the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or
  • When the foetus is seriously malformed.

The Black Protest movement and the protest of Black Monday caused the government to withhold its support for the project. Ultimately, the draft bill was forwarded to one of the parliamentary committees where it was left in political limbo. But the idea behind “Stop abortion” still lurks – two civic draft bills eradicating the third exception and criminalising sex education were debated in the Polish Parliament in April 2020 before being sent to parliamentary committees as well.

Legal Barriers to Abortion, Anti-Choice Propaganda, and Monetary Incentives

Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws, as well as the worst access to contraceptives, in all of Europe. With non-obligatory (and poor quality) sex education in schools and the constant abuse of the so called “conscience clause,” whereby a doctor can refuse to perform an abortion citing conflicting personal values or beliefs, the country is called “women’s hell” (after a famous book on reproductive injustice by Polish physician, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, published in 1930) by many. And rightfully so – official governmental data shows that out of the 1076 terminated pregnancies in 2017 – an already very low number –, only one (!) was performed on the ground of being the result of a criminal act. It seems extremely unlikely, even impossible, for this number to correctly reflect reality, especially given the fact that over 5,000 cases of crimes against one’s sexual freedom (which includes, among others, rape, incest, and forced prostitution) were recorded that year. What these numbers prove is not that Polish women prefer not to access abortion. Rather, they show that denial of care is a serious problem; pregnant Polish citizens leaving their country to fully exercise their rights is a point in case.

Meanwhile, the Polish healthcare system does little to respond to this problem. The Ministry of Health remains inert and refrains from ensuring that medical professionals obey existing law. On the contrary – the ministry consults with anti-choice activists and prepares harmful toolkits, like the infamous “Towards Maturity” sex education program (best known for quotes like “Supplementation of vitamin C is one of the best cures for syphilis.” or “A fertilized egg communicates with the mother, asking her to welcome it in her chubby cradle.”). Back in 2017, another program called “For Life” was introduced, within which a new allowance of 4000 zlotys (around 880 €) was set up for people, who decide to carry a malformed pregnancy to term instead of legally terminating it.

The Backlash Against Reproductive Rights Threatens the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Germany’s Immediate Neighbourhood

Whilst Germany is drafting a new national action plan that foresees the implementation of UN security council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, women’s rights are taking a hit not just in countries plagued by conflict and crises, but also right in front of its doorstep. The backlash against reproductive health and rights is the most obvious example in this regard. Policymakers have to recognise the importance of sexual and reproductive rights in civil society and stand strong in defending them. The fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights is one for women’s rights of course, but it is also about so much more. It is about queer rights, respect, building loving and supportive families, access to quality education, eradicating gender-based violence. It is about understanding that sexual and reproductive health and rights are human rights and that it is the states’ responsibility to implement them. Finally, it also concerns at least seven of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Push for Comprehensive Sex Education, Provide Contraception, Integrate Reproductive Care Into Public Health Services

The first step to achieving full equality in reproductive care is to provide youth with comprehensive sex education. It is education that helps the youth recognise their bodily autonomy and helps them gain quality knowledge of sexuality and contraception as well as sexual and gender-based violence. A comprehensive curriculum is crucial for raising self-confident adults capable of planning their future, including their reproductive future.

Naturally, efforts must not stop at teaching about contraception; ensuring full access to it is just as important – after all, contraceptives play one of the main roles in family-planning. That includes every form of contraception – not only hormonal (pills, patches, shots, etc.) or mechanical (external and internal condoms), or yet another, like surgical or chemical, but also emergency contraception (which is a form of hormonal contraception, not an abortion pill!). It is essential to ensure access to the “morning-after pill” with no prescription, so that it is easily purchasable whenever needed.

Last but not least – legal and safe abortion for all. Contraception is not always 100% effective or accessible for an individual. There is no use in attempting to shame pregnant persons into silence in the hope that they will change their mind about having the procedure. Making legal abortion inaccessible will not make it disappear, it will simply make abortions less safe and put women’s lives at risk. Abortion stigma undermines properly designed abortion law and therefore should be eradicated once and for all. It is essential to recognise abortion as one of the key aspects of bodily self-agency and an inevitable part of building an open-minded society focused on the well-being and safety of all its members. 

All reproductive care services should be included in public health services. To make sure they are universally accessible, they should be carried out in as many clinics as possible countrywide. Information about how and where to get an abortion should be easily accessible as well: It is high time to lift the ban on informing about abortion services in Germany as this would not only improve access, but also contribute to destigmatisation. Mandatory waiting periods should be waived as they constitute a constraint for persons living in rural areas, single parents, who cannot arrange care for their children for a longer period of time, and persons living in violent relationships (who may face further violence if their partner finds out about the procedure and/or will not allow them to leave the house in the first place).

Reproductive care services have to be inclusive of all persons, who may need them, as not only women get pregnant. It is necessary to train medical professionals on queer aspect of sexual and reproductive health and rights (with the help of toolkits and reports such as this one), so that transgender men, non-binary, gender-nonconforming persons, and other members of the queer community will be able to find the help they might need.

Guaranteeing Reproductive Self-Agency Means Securing Basic Rights

With the rise of conservative, nationalist, and fundamentalist religious movements it is now more crucial than ever to ensure full access to reproductive care services. Attempts to limit access by creating social pressure or even changing the legislation are aimed at controlling the population and limiting the self-agency of particular individuals (as it was brilliantly described in La Chair interdite by Diane Ducret). There is no full gender equality without full reproductive rights, nor is there a society built on mutual respect. We need to underline the individuality of reproductive decisions, like the Black Protest did in one of its catchphrases: “Don’t want an abortion? Then don’t get one.” 

Reproductive self-agency attests to the basic rights to liberty, security, privacy, and freedom from discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (and sometimes even torture), therefore serving as a litmus test for the respect of human rights in a country. The decision to have an abortion is to be made by the pregnant person (and only them!). The state’s duty is to enable them to make that choice by making reproductive services accessible for anyone in need.

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Antonina Lewandowska

Antonina Lewandowska works as coordinator of ASTRA – Central and Eastern European Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. She is also a sex educator in Ponton Group of Sex Educators and serves as the first-ever student’s consultant for sexual abuse at the University of Warsaw. An alumnus of the „Leadership, communication and policy skills development” course at Cambridge University, she is currently studying sociology at the College of Interdisciplinary Individual Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw.