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Seasonal Reflections on (Reproductive) Politics in Poland

Going home for Christmas, in my case, means traveling from England to Poland. Apart from catching up with family and friends, this time of the year is also about catching up on Polish politics. Among the myriad political changes that Poland has seen in 2016 is a momentous challenge to women’s reproductive rights – significant in itself but also revealing as part of a broader political transformation whose crisis we are witnessing as the eventful year is coming to an end.

Robert Pralat, 18 December '16 - available to download as a PDF.


Following national politics from abroad is difficult. At times, I feel a little guilty about not engaging enough with politics in Poland when absorbed in my life in the UK. But there’s only so much one can digest in this day and age. And keeping up on Polish politics in the past twelve months has been particularly challenging. Since the formation of the current government just over a year ago, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, led by a former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, has used its parliamentary majority to completely transform the political landscape – at a pace that makes specific decisions and proposals easily lost among the numerous dramatic headlines.

For someone with autocratic ambitions like Kaczyński, it is a clever approach. As evidenced by PiS’s consistent lead in the polls, his electorate – Poland’s Catholic incarnation of populist and anti-establishment nationalism – is satisfied with a government that clearly does not procrastinate. Meanwhile, many ordinary people with limited interest in the often elusive world of politics want to simply get on with their lives – overloaded with information, as they switch off, they become desensitised to the seriousness of the decisions that are swiftly being made.

But the pace of change is also a risky approach because it is likely to provoke backlash and to ultimately debilitate Kaczyński’s second attempt to redirect Poland’s 25-year-old post-communist transition to democracy. His vision of the country’s future, and its relationship to the past, is at odds with the fragmented but increasingly infuriated opposition and much of the society. As I write these words, thousands of people are protesting in Warsaw and other Polish cities against the government’s latest action – a decision to limit media access to the parliament.

In their spontaneous civil mobilisation, this weekend’s protests resemble those in the early October when crowds took to the streets opposing a proposal for a near-total ban on abortion. A few weeks ago, along with my ReproSoc colleague Katie Dow, I commented on the circumstances and consequences of that proposal at a discussion event organised by the Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights. Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe – the proposed law would have made all terminations illegal except where necessary to save a woman’s life. But after some 100,000 Poles demonstrated throughout the country, an intensity of social pressure the government did not seem to have expected, the bill was overwhelmingly voted down, with some ministers talking about ‘food for thought’ and a ‘lesson in humility’.

photo: NBC News

The government’s bold attempt to further restrict the widely supported existing abortion law – in place since 1993 and popularly known as a ‘compromise’ – can be interpreted as a gesture towards Poland’s Catholic Church. The Church officials have been openly supportive of PiS and maintaining a loyal base of voters requires reciprocity. But can attempts to impose religious dogmas on a society that is becoming increasingly secular actually work? A direct intervention seems unlikely to succeed. In her recent book on the influence of churches on national policies, based on research in six different countries, the political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse argues that churches that are too allied to political parties have less actual influence on policy making. This is because partisan coalitions cost churches moral authority and diminish their role as representatives of the common good. Looking at history, then, Grzymala-Busse expects that, in the long term, a more explicit involvement by the Catholic Church in Polish politics is likely to weaken its power – and a win of a full ban on abortion could be a ‘Pyrrhic victory’.

The abortion debate in Poland certainly is not over – soon after the proposed bill was voted down, Kaczyński admitted that the government would ‘strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, [women] end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name’. For now, he needs to focus on responding to another challenge to his controversial quest for radical reform. Will the current protest about media freedom teach the government another ‘lesson in humility’, enabling Kaczyński to continue materialising his political vision, perhaps at a slower pace? Will the opposition finally use yet another opportunity to articulate an appealing alternative and reverse public sentiments? Or will the growing chaos lead to something different altogether?

It has been a tumultuous year and it is good to use some of the Christmas season to reflect on politics by unpicking elements of what may look like an incoherent mess. It is also good to spend this time recharging our batteries in case the protests we have seen in 2016 are only the beginning.

The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies. ReproSoc is part of an expanding concentration of Reproductive Studies at Cambridge, is led by Professor Sarah Franklin and has funding from the Wellcome Trust, British Academy, ESRC, ERC, and Office of the Vice Chanccelloer, as well as several other funding bodies.

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