Skip to content

Memory Keepers

In Poland, the reality of women’s rights has changed little since historic protests

Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc was a widowed mother of two children when she learned from a posting that the Polish government was trying to ban abortion. Women who terminated a pregnancy were being threatened with prison sentences. There was a meeting in central Warsaw to protest the proposed legislation. She left her children at home with instructions for the soup on the stove and went. She was surprised to run into two women she knew. It was raining. So began her life as an activist: 1989.

Ewa Kacak-Niemczuk was an IT consultant and a mother of two children. She had long been conscious of discrimination against women in society, but this was the first time she’d participated in a demonstration. She couldn’t stand the arrogance of the politicians who wanted to ban abortion and send women to prison for terminating a pregnancy. Protestors met in central Warsaw; the crowd gathered slowly at first and then “the offices closed and it was like a flood.” She had never before felt such a sense of solidarity among women. It was raining. So began her life as an activist: 2016.

Polish women captured the world’s attention when they went on strike, staging massive protests across the country, and successfully halted a proposed ban on abortion. The protests were generally portrayed in the international media as a relatively straightforward victory for Polish women. But the Polish activists I spoke with were less triumphant in their assessment.

“The first thing I would like to strongly express is that this was not a victory,” Julia Maciocha of Warsaw’s Feminoteka told me. “We have a really bad situation in Poland right now, and I know it’s not so interesting for journalists abroad, but saying that we won something—it’s completely a lie. We can’t say we won something if we weren’t fighting for something. We’re fighting against something.”

Polish women captured the world’s attention when they went on strike, staging massive protests across the country, and successfully halted a proposed ban on abortion.

It is true that the protests stalled the proposed legislation; but it is also true that the harsh reality facing Polish women remains much the same. There is already, effectively, a ban on abortion in Poland. The three exceptions allowed under current law—threat to the women’s health or life; severe, irreversible damage to or disease of the fetus; and pregnancy which is the result of a crime—are often unable to be utilized, because doctors can use a “conscience clause” to refuse service. This, combined with a diffuse approval process and widespread social and political pressure, has effectively curtailed access to abortion. Since 1993, when the current law when into effect, there have been between two hundred and a thousand legal abortions per year. Unofficially, it is estimated between eighty thousand and two hundred thousand Polish women receive an abortion each year, via clinics abroad, abortifacient pills ordered online, and expensive and illegal in-country operations.

If you are a Polish woman who meets the criteria for a legal abortion, your situation has not changed; if you are a Polish woman who wants an abortion for social or economic reasons—more than 97 percent of Polish abortions before 1993—your options have not changed. This has been the case, more or less, for over twenty years.

Any inert sense of self-satisfaction in the protests’ success was offset by the ongoing struggle over women’s rights in Poland. With the support of the country’s powerful Catholic Church, the Polish government, led by the far-right Law and Justice Party, has continued to regulate and legislate against women’s rights, often under the guise of fighting the “ideology of gender.”

Beginning in 2012 and 2013, gender—as a catch-all term for issues encompassing gender equality, family relations, sexual orientation, and reproductive rights—became the cri de cœur of conservative Polish activists, church groups, and politicians. Similar rhetoric has lately appeared in countries around the world, but in Poland it is remarkable both for its prominence and its zeal, a result of the church’s political power. “The ideology of gender,” Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek commented in a debate with the intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski, “presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined”—which together killed almost six million Polish citizens in World War II.

Pregnancy and conception-related issues are the most common manifestation of this campaign against “the ideology of gender”—not just abortion, but also what, according to a papal encyclical, constitutes “fruits of the same tree,” contraception. As of July, women in Poland need a prescription to buy ellaOne, the most popular emergency contraception pill, and the only one commonly available over-the-counter. To receive such a prescription in a timely manner, one would either need to quickly book an expensive appointment with a private doctor, or to have and continually renew an ellaOne prescription as a contingency plan.

Poland has one of the lowest levels of modern contraceptive use among developed countries; according to the UN, less than half of Polish women use modern contraceptive methods, compared to between 60 and 80 percent in other European countries. The church successfully pressured the government to limit subsidies for hormonal birth control in the nineties, finally phasing them out altogether in 2002. Many doctors refuse to prescribe birth control, some pharmacists refuse to sell it, and the annual cost of a prescription, renewable quarterly, is almost five percent of the average Polish salary.

The church actively dissuades contraceptive use, furthermore, among the actively faithful, some forty percent of the population. As Joanna Mishtal writes in her book The Politics of Morality, priests are encouraged to inquire about contraceptive methods during confession and Polish couples married in the church—the vast majority—are required to take a family planning course that prods women to adopt ineffective natural methods—what Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc calls Vatican Roulette. (Women are encouraged to try to track their fertility cycles; “pulling out” is considered psychologically damaging to both parties.)

Ewa Kacak-Niemczuk recalled her own experience with the course. The counselor assured the young couple that the “monthly rhythms” method was effective. She could confirm it from her own experience: only her eighth child was conceived by accident—all the others were planned! Others found the meetings humiliating, invasive, and felt pressured to record their experience with the monthly rhythms method for church approval.

Women of Ewa’s generation largely learned about contraceptives and other sexual health topics through magazines like Brava Girl. Today, students learn from their peers and the internet: Poland has no science-based sex education in schools. Joanna Skonieczna of the Ponton Group, which promotes sexual education, says that instead students take a class on “preparation for family life.” The textbooks for the class promote traditional gender roles, stereotypes, and myths: provocative outfits invite trouble, healthy girls don’t need regular trips to the gynecologist. Joanna says she received a call from a student whose teacher told her condoms cause infertility and that sperm could be killed with a bath of warm water and vinegar. The woman currently in charge of this curriculum has been quoted saying that contraceptives cause women to become promiscuous, and implying that condoms are carcinogenic.

Despite the protests, further restrictions on abortion remain on the agenda.

Despite the protests, further restrictions on abortion remain on the agenda. In December of 2016, after the protests, the government passed a bill offering women 4,000 zloty (approximately $1,000) to carry a difficult pregnancy, where the fetus is seriously malformed or diseased, to term. A new legal proposal, currently moving towards adoption, would remove the exception for damaged or diseased fetuses entirely; these have accounted for as much as 80 percent of legal abortions performed in recent years.

Even expectant mothers have seen their rights eroded. In late 2016, the government dismissed a set of regulations and guidelines that sought to insure a woman’s rights and comfort during childbirth; these included, among others, the right to ask for a glass of water, the right to choose what position to give birth in, and the right to receive an epidural if requested. “In Poland there is an expression: when you are pregnant they say you are ‘in a blessed state,’” Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc told me, “and I say, no, no: being in menopause is a blessed state.”

Safeguards preventing violence against women are also common targets of this crusade against gender equality. Approximately one in four Polish women have experienced domestic or sexual violence. The law governing the prosecution of domestic abusers is complex, excessively bureaucratic, and largely ineffective—and still, nonetheless, an improvement over the law it replaced. If a woman has children, financial worries may further hinder her decision to leave an abusive partner: Poland has one of the lowest rates of alimony payment in Europe, and a government fund intended to cover the shortfall is chronically underfunded and, thanks to a byzantine system of means-testing, inaccessible even to women making minimum wage.

The Center for Women’s Rights, one of the oldest and most respected organizations working with victims of violence, had its funding pulled by the government, greatly limiting its ability to provide shelter to abuse victims and advise them of their legal rights. The funding was rescinded in the name of gender “equality,” because the Center primarily helps women. The Center was not invited to participate in the law’s current reevaluation, but rather was replaced by church-friendly groups that emphasize family reconciliation.

This dangerously retrograde attitude extends even to international accords. Several members of the government have advocated for Poland to pull out of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, established by the Council of Europe in 2011 and ratified by Poland three years later. In practical terms, Poland’s withdrawal would mean little: it does not currently meet the convention’s obligations—for example, a twenty-four-hour hotline for victims of violence. But as an indication of the government’s attitude towards violence against women, it is obviously troubling.

Elzbieta Korolczuk, a Polish sociologist who has written extensively about the so-called anti-gender movement, argues it is properly understood within dueling visions of the state: as a national community rooted in the nuclear family; or as a society of free individuals. “If you believe the state should operate on the level of families and not individuals,” she told me, “then it becomes quite obvious that the state cannot protect women from abusive husbands, because families can regulate themselves.” Daddy knows best.

Much of this can rightly be attributed to the 2015 electoral victory of the Law and Justice party: far-right and (recently) populist, closely allied with the church, it is the first time since 1989 that a political party has won an outright governing majority. Yet the policies of the Law and Justice party are often a continuation and culmination of work begun by previous Polish governments.

They were not the first party to put forward a total ban on abortion (proposed as recently as 2011), nor the first to suggest criminalizing women who received abortions (previously suggested in 1989), nor even the first to speculate how the government could investigate miscarriages for potential abortions (this also happened in 2008): all of those were first put forth by Polish politicians and parties that had drawn international praise, primarily for enacting drastic, market-friendly economic reforms—which, incidentally, often disproportionately affected Polish women.

Though Law and Justice are undoubtedly much worse than their predecessors, discrimination against women has been a constant presence in post-socialist Poland, flowing, primarily, from the power and influence of the Catholic Church. The church’s role, and the subsequent course of women’s rights after 1989, was not inevitable.

Poland introduced legal abortion in 1956, well before most western European countries. As a communist country, gender equality—which is not to say feminism—was enshrined in the state’s official ideology. Women were encouraged to enter the workforce (reaching a participation rate of nearly 80 percent), provided with basic appliances to minimize housework, received increased access to education, and granted generous maternity leave and childcare benefits. This progress shouldn’t be exaggerated: the state apparatus was still controlled by men, and discrimination persisted, especially as women were increasingly saddled with the double burden of work and child care. Nonetheless, it was progress.

After 1989, the Catholic Church emerged as the most powerful and best organized institution in Polish society, widely respected for its role in supporting and fostering Solidarity. At the height of the opposition movement, weekly mass attendance rose to eighty percent of the population, because churches were a relatively protected space of free expression and association. Politicians, eager to assimilate its prestige, courted its patronage, adopting its political program as their own. The church had significant influence over the educational system and an unusually expansive role in political life. Banning abortion became a priority.

After several failed attempts, in 1992 the government, with aggressive lobbying from the church, succeeded in passing the current abortion laws, which were said to represent a “compromise,” though they officially outlawed the vast majority of abortions. The change was not supported by the public: over 65 percent opposed the law, and activists like Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc staged large protests around the country.

Meanwhile women’s rights, more broadly, were under pressure from the country’s fanatical embrace of economic liberalism. Between 1990 and 2005, Poland eliminated five million workplaces, even as the working-age population increased by two million. Women were more likely to be laid off, and less likely to find new jobs. In his book The Defeat of Solidarity, the political scientist David Ost writes of union officials in the nineties eager to rid their factories of those they deemed unproductive employees, usually women.

Other women, as dissenting economist Tadeusz Kowalik writes in From Solidarity to Sellout, were shifted to employment agencies and rehired—without sick leave, paid vacations, or a state pension. Public preschools and kindergartens, many near or on the premises of workplaces, were closed or privatized, hindering young mothers’ access to the labor market. Maternity leave benefits and subsidies for child care were cut. Many health care subsidies were eliminated, including state coverage of epidurals during childbirth.

The anti-gender hysteria that aided the Law and Justice party’s victory is, like the erosion of women’s rights, inextricably linked to the legacy of Poland’s economic transformation.

Poland’s economy has gradually improved since the country joined the European Union in 2004, though the nominally left-wing governing coalition needlessly surrendered EU legal protections for women’s rights in return for church support. The party that anchored that coalition subsequently collapsed after a series of corruption scandals, and Polish politics has since oscillated between the right (Civic Platform) and far-right (Law and Justice), both of which aggressively court the church’s support. Despite the country’s sustained economic growth, women are still twice as likely to fall below the poverty line.

Fervor for repealing the abortion law faded over the course of the next decade, its momentum no doubt hampered, at least partially, by the privations of daily life. “People got tired, people had to work,” says Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc. Fewer people showed up each year. She remembers going to a demonstration in the late nineties to find that only one other protestor had turned up. She met young women who didn’t know there was a time when abortion was legal in Poland; she called herself “a tiny memory keeper.”

The church’s uninterrupted influence over education has succeeded in shifting societal attitudes. The social stigma around abortion has increased; it is a taboo topic, even though between one quarter and one third of Polish women have had an abortion. But even the church has begun to recognize the tide of popular opinion: after initially supporting the proposed abortion ban, it scrambled to disassociate itself after the protests. Weekly mass attendance has fallen to forty percent (still high for a European country, of course). Strong majorities of Poles still favor a secular approach to issues like sex education and contraception.

The church’s outsized influence is in many ways a relic, the result of the country’s uneven political forces: a lack of serious opposition, buoyed by a pervasive cynicism that manifests in low voter turnout. Only 51.6 percent of the electorate voted in the 2015 election that brought Law and Justice to power. The anti-gender hysteria that aided the party’s victory is, like the erosion of women’s rights, inextricably linked to the legacy of Poland’s economic transformation.

Promoters of the gender threat showed “that rampant individualism is not only a cultural trend,” Elzbieta Korolczuk told me, “but also an economic and social trend. ‘Gender ideology’ allowed these forces to connect this cultural level skillfully with the economic one, and it’s not coincidental that it appeared in the aftermath of the economic crisis.”

Beneath the theological justifications and cultural laments, however, are other concerns. Poland’s fertility rate has been steadily declining, from 2.98 in 1960 to 2.1 in 1989 to 1.22 in 2002; in 2013 it was 1.26, one of the lowest rates in Europe. Anxiety about this trend goes back nearly five decades, but it has accelerated over the last twenty years, as evidenced by old covers from major Polish magazines: “If We Want to be a Healthy Society: Let’s Make Babies!”; “The Last Parents. Dramatic Decline in Polish Population”. Some of these blamed the decline on Polish women’s professional ambitions, others on the supposed debasement of Polish masculinity (“SHE works; HE does not”; “The Terror of Equality”). It is the original nationalist fear: the disappearance of the nation and its corollary, emasculation.

There are, of course, more likely explanations for declining fertility rates during this period: economic shortages, political and economic instability, a prolonged housing crisis, and severe cuts to social spending. This continues today. Poland generously extended maternity leave to fifty-two weeks in 2014—but only for those on a permanent work contract. Poland has the highest percentage of temporary employees in the EU, over a quarter of the work force.

Ewa Kacak-Niemczuk was not a temporary worker, but her former employer still tried to fire her during her second week of maternity leave. She previously watched job interviewers shut down after she admitted she planned to marry, because employers feared she would get pregnant. Joanna Mishtal writes that young women are frequently interrogated about their pregnancy plans by potential employers, and some are forced to sign contracts stating that they will not become pregnant for two to three years after accepting a job.

The success of far-right parties like Law and Justice and their associated social movements is often interpreted as a backlash against the progress of women and other marginalized groups, a futile revolt against the arc of the moral universe. But sociologist Weronika Grzebalska offers a different explanation. Recalling Walter Benjamin’s statement, “every fascism is an index of a failed revolution,” she argues that, rather than simply taking away rights, Law and Justice is actually playing out an alternative vision to the failures of 1989. It is the only party, she points out, that valorizes care work; respect for motherhood, even rhetorically, is more than the labor market frequently offers.

Law and Justice has done more than that, implementing a program of monthly cash payments, allocated per child, for families with two or more children. It is the first Polish political party since 1989 to significantly expand the welfare state. “Kaczyński [the leader of Law and Justice]—he’s got a sick mind,” says Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc, “but he gave the people what they wanted: money and some kind of security.”

In pursuing the “ideology of gender,” however, the Law and Justice Party and the church may have inadvertently catalyzed just the sort of mass feminist movement that the country lacked—despite some valiant organizing—as women’s rights deteriorated after 1989: a moment when disassociated individual experiences connect to a shared struggle. There is currently an unprecedented level of feminist and women-focused organizing in Poland, drawing in thousands of new activists, connecting them with long-time, seasoned organizers.

Many women I met, like Ewa Kacak-Niemczuk, had never been seriously involved with politics, or even attended a protest, before October 3, 2016. Many, like her, have since become organizers: Kacak-Niemczuk has planned several events in her town, which also aim to emphasize the joys of being a woman. Others, like Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc, speak to groups around the country, preserving the fragile link to a little-known history and educating the next generation. And this could be the protests’ long-term achievement, whether or not one considers them victorious in the short-term: the proliferation of memory-keepers.

Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.