March in support of abortion rights, Łódź October 2nd 2016. Photo: Zorro2212/Wikimedia Commons. No changes made. View the license here.
By Ashley Renz
In September 2021, in the southern Polish town of Pszczyna, a 30-year-old woman named Izabela died due to fatal complications in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Izabela’s fetus lacked amniotic fluid, posing the risk of fetal developmental defects and severe inflammation within the womb. Although the fetus was not viable, the medical staff tending to Izabela refused to perform an abortion for fear of legal repercussions under Poland’s restrictive abortion policies. Since 1993, Polish women were able to seek medical abortions when the mother’s life or health was at risk, if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act, or if medical tests indicated a severe and irreversible defect in the fetus. On October 22, 2020, Poland’s controversial ruling party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwoś, meaning “Law and Justice,” commonly referred to as PiS, removed the clause allowing women to have an abortion due to fetal defects. In light of this, doctors advised Izabela that she would receive treatment when her fetus died naturally within her womb. The fetus died in September, causing Izabela to go into septic shock and ultimately leading to her death. When Izabela’s family came forward with her story in early November, her death’s troubling circumstances sparked a period of collective mourning and protests across major Polish cities. Izabela’s family lawyer made a public statement blaming the law’s ambiguity for the hospital’s malpractice––the case which Izabela’s family is pursuing in regional courts. Protestors expressed their frustration and disfavour for Poland’s restrictive abortion laws, stating that Izabela is not the only woman to die due to the legislation.
The country-wide protests throughout Poland are reminiscent of the winter of 2020 when hundreds of thousands of protestors marched through the streets in the wake of Poland’s abortion law modifications. The landmark ruling has borne increased controversy within the European Union (EU) as an example of Poland’s “illiberalizing tendencies” and has brought a critical eye toward the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Polish legal system. The death of Izabela has drawn parallels to similarly controversial events across Europe, most notably the case of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland. Despite some similarities, Poland’s 2020 abortion modifications marked the country as the second strictest in the EU, ahead only of Malta. This essay explains how Poland’s political trajectory has led to a near-total ban on abortion rights and examines why and how the country differs from its Central European (CE) neighbours.
In studying abortion legislation in Central Europe, the traditional academic and layman use of a European ‘East-West divide’ is insufficient at capturing the unique histories, circumstances, and individualisms that comprise of one country’s political body and populace. This is demonstrated firstly through a broad comparison of abortion policy, public perception, and popular response in the four Visegrad group countries (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary), where it is made evident that Europe’s ‘East’ varies considerably in policy making, affirming that the ‘East’ cannot be viewed as a single comparative body. This argument is further examined in a close case study of abortion in Poland. Within this analysis, political trends and legal developments throughout Poland’s history will be identified and searched for explanatory variables. This section will identify key points that can: (1) explain how Poland developed its current stance on abortion and (2) be used as points of comparison to examine why Central European countries have developed in vastly different ways.
Abortion is chosen as the topic of focus because through 2020 and 2021, abortion has been a key topic of discussion in Central Europe, bringing to the forefront many grievances and polarities among the populace. This issue also encompasses socio-political indicators that provide insight on gender equality in governance and daily life, on conceptions of morality and purity, on public spending, and in long-form analysis, it can be used to understand state needs or issues. This section will affirm that Central European states have fairly little in common regarding their approach to social issues, aside from their shared experience under socialism and eventual accession to the European Union. Each country’s approach to the contentious topic of abortion legality has been uniquely formed throughout history, with legacies of socialism, nationalism, religiosity, and individuality that inform each state’s positionality.
This essay fits into a broad body of interdisciplinary research that examines the role of the ‘East-West divide’ framework in dissecting Europe’s sociopolitical issues. In particular, this essay turns to the contemporary issue of abortion legality to emphasize that a state’s response to contentious social issues is largely informed by the state’s unique histories and circumstances. The points of difference in Central European countries’ histories and circumstances far outweigh their points of similarity, effectively proving that Central Europe cannot reasonably be viewed as a single body of comparison.
Scholars of politics, sociology, psychology, law, and ethics play an important role in tracing the pathways of morality formation, political advocacy, and response. This essay is situated within existing lines of scholarship that consider how individual idea formation, personality, and value systems are in a mutual relationship with religiosity, morality expression, socialization habits, and response to circumstances. The sources examined below were chosen for their work on social pattern identification in the European context. They can be divided into three broad analytical camps with significant overlap: behavioural analysis, attitude formation, and structural studies.
The behavioural analysis camp refers to work that examines patterns of human behaviour in the context of external stimuli. This sector of scholarship is relevant because it informs the variable relationships that are explored within this essay. For instance, within behavioural analysis, scholars can understand how advocacy groups form, how individuals internalize government policies, why certain events trigger various reactions, and a multitude of other variable relationships. Behavioural analysis examines behaviour as a result of circumstance. Deruddre, Van de Velde, and Bracke challenge Europe’s East-West divide through a cross-case analysis of contraceptive behaviour. Their study examines the frequency and methods of contraceptive use through factors that influence usage patterns at the individual, couple, and state level. They first test the hypothesis that “modern and modern-reversible” contraceptive use is negatively associated with gender inequality, and later test if this association is interpretable within an East-West framework. The authors prove their first relational hypothesis correct, with attention paid to gendered dynamics, socialization, and education at the three levels of study. They find that Central-Eastern European countries are generally associated with “traditional [contraceptive use], no [contraceptive use] and modern male reversible” contraceptive use, with the largest variations in this pattern associated with gender inequality at the state level. Ultimately, Deruddre et al. conclude that, while an East-West divide is relevant for understanding wide patterns of behaviour across Europe, it is an insufficient framework for identifying regional variations that often contribute to the bigger picture.
Deruddre et al. provide a foundational study in the context of this essay, through their careful attention toward gendered dynamics at the social and political level. In turning to contraceptive use patterns, the authors isolate a variable that provides information on sexual education, access, and normalization of sexual health, gendered sexual health responsibility, and familial value structures. They then successfully measure this variable against pertinent external stimuli such as religiosity, state systems and structures, education, and life/career ambitions to present associations across Europe. Particularly valuable is Deruddre et al.’s challenge of the East-West framework––the authors find that East-West divisions are broad patterns that may provide insight for further comparison, but are not helpful when analyzing social phenomena. Similar studies have been conducted by Kocourkova, Deruddre, Van de Putte and Bracke, and Hofmann, Neumann, and Zweifel, all of whom address different forms of reproductive health behaviour under circumstances created by the state. Deruddre, Van de Putte, and Bracke look at contraceptive use as a result of external and internal circumstance, Kocourkova similarly finds that sexual health education and religious education/influence have opposing effects on reducing abortion rates in Central European countries. Hofmann et al. look at how regional and individual circumstances impact an individual’s willingness to engage in “risky health decisions” to access abortion services. Taken together, these works demonstrate how sexual health behaviours are influenced by external factors and internalized principles, which are particularly relevant when considering the long-term effects of restrictive abortion policies and conservative sexual health education and access. Trends in “abortion tourism” out of Poland are examples of these phenomena.
The attitude formation sphere is best encompassed by the works of Kulin and Meulemen, and Jonason, Zjenjowski, Szymaniak, and Leniarska. Their works dissect actions and reactions to various socio-political situations in an effort to understand why groups and individuals act the way they do. The attitude formation camp looks at action or non-action in response to stimuli as a result of individual and social circumstance. Attitude formation looks at behaviour (action or non-action) at a particular moment in time (i.e. following a legislative change, after a big event, etc.) as determined by circumstance (i.e. individual morality, social group formation/influence, religiosity, etc.). Kulin and Meulemen consider attitudes toward state welfare systems along an East-West divide framework. They consider Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values to develop a measure of an individual’s value systems, both inherent to the person and born from socialization and circumstance. Similar to the method used by Jonason et al., the authors test for correlation between Basic Human Values and support for state welfare systems. Kulin and Meulemen find that high measures of self-transcendence values correlate with greater support for social welfare systems. In states where social expenditure is higher, self-transcendence appears to have a more positive impact. Furthermore, Eastern Europe demonstrates higher “conservation” values, lending to a greater resistance toward large-scale social welfare. The authors hypothesize that these phenomena may be lingering effects of Eastern Europe’s “authoritarian egalitarianism under communism.” Kulin and Meulemen’s piece supports the hypothesis that Central Europe cannot be viewed as a monolith. The authors demonstrate significant variance in attitude formation across Europe and support the idea that patterns may be traced to similar circumstances (variables) that have explanatory power for action-taking and opinion formation.
In a similar line of study, Jonason, Zjenjowski, Szymaniak and Leniarska present an analysis of individual and collective attitude-formation within the context of Poland’s abortion ban. The authors take a psychology-rooted approach to determine how variables such as religiosity, morality, and situational differences impact the likelihood of action-taking (referred to as the “call of duty”) when confronted with public issues. In the case of the abortion ruling in Poland, Jonason et al.’s survey-based regression demonstrates a strong link between individual characteristics (i.e. general morality beliefs, hierarchical vs. collective authoritative structure beliefs, ingroup vs. collective value, etc.) and an individual’s reaction to the decision. Individuals who value purity, ingroup protection, and hierarchical authority generally reported a less-negative reaction to the ruling, while individuals who value fairness and “care” perceived the ruling as more-negative. The authors demonstrated a link between Catholicism and the former group, as well as an increased “call of duty” for those who perceived the situation as a stronger negative.
The analyses conducted by Kulin and Meulemen, as well as Jonason et al., provide key findings that are essential when considering the large-scale protests in Poland throughout the past two years, especially in the context of Poland’s intra-state political conflict. Taub’s New York Times article on the December 2020 protests articulates the pressure to act as Polish women hit the streets in spite of rising COVID-19 risks and personal commitments. For many, the responsibility to act overcame the risks involved. Conversely, another New York Times piece by Santora, Pronczuk, and Magdziarz demonstrates a similar call to action by PiS ruling leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who asked his supporters to fight back against protestors in “defense” of Poland, instigating action by appealing to his voter bases’ fears. Jonason et al.’s piece provides valuable insight into how individual morality and values inform their opinion on social issues. The work by Jonason et al. also explains why some social issues invoke a stronger individual reaction than others, determining the strength of action (both individual and collective) in response to a given issue. They note that the abortion ban may have invoked a particularly strong reaction due to the quick speed of implementation––a variable that will be explored further in this analysis.
Structural studies deal with the relationship between individual belief, action, and socio-political structures. This camp considers how behaviour is constrained and liberated within state systems and social constructions. This realm of scholarship analyzes human behaviour, likelihood of advocacy, positionality of state officials, and other relationships between the state and its citizens. Formal abortion legality, access, and social repercussions are important considerations in the cross-case analysis of abortion in Central Europe and beyond. Structural studies critically examine these considerations by placing human behaviour within their context. Fleming, Ramsayer, and Škodič Zakšek turn to the experience of three European midwives who have engaged with conscientious objection in their respective countries. The intent of their piece is to “minimize empirical gaps” in the practice of conscientious objection––an inherently important discussion in the context of abortion policy––by documenting the experience of medical professionals who have engaged the claim. Fleming et al.’s empirical study reveals the numerous factors that constitute the response to conscientious objection, namely existing legal systems, existing legislation, and support from professional organizations and religious institutions. Moreover, their work illustrates a gap in pan-European legislation that neglects agreement on the practice of conscientious objection. As the authors note, there is a lack of clarity for health professionals that exercise freedom of movement within the EU. This is especially pertinent when considering the diversity of belief and legislation regarding abortion across the European Union.
Fleming et al.’s piece illustrates the complexity of abortion legality. It brings forward an interesting conversation about the hierarchies of individual freedom at the core of abortion debates. Namely, what freedom is more valued: The right of women to receive abortions upon request, or the right of a doctor to refuse procedures they do not wish to administer? Where is the line drawn on either side? As mentioned at the start of this paper, the death of Izabela illustrates this theoretical gap––doctors exercised their right and perceived legal duty to deny a medical procedure under certain conditions, but the resulting death of Izabela demonstrates the potentially fatal consequences of this exercise, putting the doctors’ decision under intense scrutiny. Fleming et al.’s pan-European framework makes the text all the more relevant. Each European state has a unique structure for dealing with conscientious objection which, among other factors, changes the experience of medical practitioners who invoke the claim. Even further, different regions within each country will deal with the issue within their framework. Not only does this piece demonstrate the theoretical inability to use Central Europe as a single comparative case, but it provides a magnifying glass toward a controversial element of abortion legality and a point of comparative traction. As is explored in the next section, the right to conscientious objection can be used as an indication of broader trends in abortion law.
Central Europe in Context
A point of commonality among nearly all the authors discussed above is their identification of Central Europe (or Central-Eastern Europe) as a regional variable––a denomination that indicates not just geographic location but implies a certain history and meaning that can be built upon and explored. This mutually understood definition is perhaps rooted in Central Europe’s communist past, its shared moment of accession into the European Union (and the shared stereotypes and perceptions that accompany accession), real and perceived elements of Central European cultures that become messy and conflated, or possibly documented social and political trends.
Another point of commonality is the conclusion that, while an East-West divide can be observed in studies on social issues, the divide is best encapsulated on a spectrum, rather than a binary. Issues such as abortion legality, contraceptive use, sexual education, the right to contentious objection, and representation of women in governance––all integral to the study of abortion rights––are developed within a country through the complex interaction between state, populace, international influences, political parties, stakeholders, etc. As such, it is key to discuss what elements of history are shared by Central European states. However, it is even more critical to emphasize the differences between these countries. Ultimately, my question is: Why do Central European states have varied policies regarding abortion? The simple answer is that they are different countries with variable objectives and variable histories. The aim of this paper is to identify what those variables are.
Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków, October 2020. Photo: Silar/Wikimedia Commons. No changes made, View the license here.
The fallacy of a comparative binary between East and West Europe bleeds into academia and permeates everyday conversation. Assumptions are made about the day-to-day interactions in former communist spaces. Perceptions of comparative “poorness” can demonize workers and create a hostile environment for Eastern immigrants in the West  and controversial policies from Eastern European politicians are perceived as representative of the entire East despite regional variance. Academics tend to be keen on the intricacies of cross-regional study, with many scholars dedicating their efforts to country analyses and growing the body of “Eastern Europeanist” literature, as coined by Ivan Kalmar. Other scholars use points of commonality within Eastern European countries (i.e. the end of communism, the 2004 accession to the EU, etc.) to engage in cross-country comparative analyses that can demonstrate the uniquities of Central Europe. Some scholars, such as Kulin and Meulemen discussed above, account for patterns in Eastern European data by stating “this particular pattern might be due to their unique experience of authoritarian egalitarianism under communism.” While Kulin and Meulemen successfully substantiate this point through data, the above quotation is an example of the catch-all solution that shared elements of Central Europe’s past can appear to be. All of the scholarship discussed above show that Eastern vs. Western trends can be observed but are proven to be insufficient at demonstrating real information about the region of study. This presents a clear analytical gap: If Central European approaches to social issues are best considered in a spectrum rather than a binary, what are the factors that influence their individual positionality?
The following sections will dissect the Visegrad Four’s approaches to abortion policy, drawing attention to legal provisions and restrictions. It will note how well the Visegrad Four conform to international standards, describe major controversies and internal conflicts regarding abortion rights, and comment on the state and populace’s stance on abortion legality. The case of Poland will be examined in a deeper context to identify variable moments and circumstances that have shaped Poland’s trajectory.
Facts and Statistics
The chart below provides a synthesis of abortion legality in Central Europe’s Visegrad Four countries. Information is drawn from the 2021 European Abortion Policies Atlas developed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
|Present legal status of abortion administration|
All sourced from European Abortion Policies Atlas (2021)
|Abortion in the Czech Republic is legal upon request until the 12th week of pregnancy. Abortion is not legal after the 12th week due to socioeconomic reasons or on criminal grounds.An abortion can be administered up to the 24th week in the case of fetal defect. An abortion can be administered at any time throughout the pregnancy if the woman’s life is in danger or the fetus presents fatal defects.||Abortion in Hungary is legal upon request until the 12th week of pregnancy. Abortion is not legal after the 12th week due to socioeconomic reasons. An abortion can be requested until the 18th week if the woman’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of a crime. Legality can be extended to 24 weeks if the fetus is at risk of presenting a birth defect, and an abortion may be performed at any time if the fetus has a lethal defect.||Abortion in Poland is legal in the case of risk to mother’s health, life or pregnancy resulting from crime (for the latter, only until the 12th week of pregnancy). Note that women who receive abortions are not criminally liable, but the medical practitioners who perform them are.||Abortion in Slovakia is legal upon request until the 12th week of pregnancy. After the 12th week, abortion is legal (with approval) in the case of risk to the woman’s health or life, or fetal defect. It is not legal after the 12th week of pregnancy for socioeconomic reasons.|
|Legal and financial conditions for abortion administration|
All sourced from European Abortion Policies Atlas (2021)
|Abortion services are only available for the Czech nationals and residents. Minors seeking an abortion require judicial or parental authorization. Abortion is covered by the state only for medical reasons. Both surgical and medical abortion methods are legal.||Abortion services are only available for Hungarian nationals and residents. Women seeking an abortion are subject to a mandatory dissuasive counselling session and waiting period. Additionally, women must provide medical and legal proof of rape or incest, and minors seeking an abortion require judicial or parental authorization. Abortion is covered by the state only for medical reasons. Both surgical and medical abortion methods are legal.||Abortion services are restricted in Poland for both nationals and non-nationals. Legally obtained abortions require third party authorization and abortion on criminal grounds require judicial or police proof. Surgical abortion is the only legal method.||Abortion services are available in Slovakia for both nationals and non-nationals with no restrictions. Women seeking an abortion must have written approval from two medical practitioners. Minors seeking an abortion require judicial or parental authorization. Abortion is covered by the state only for medical reasons. Both surgical and medical abortion methods are legal.|
|Legal provisions for conscientious objection to abortion|
All sourced from European Abortion Policies Atlas (2021)
|Abortion specialists and OBGYNs are the only professionals allowed to perform abortions in the Czech Republic. All medical practitioners in the Czech Republic have the right to conscientious objection including in the case of abortion administration, but they are obligated to provide a referral to women they have turned away.||Abortion specialists and OBGYNs are the only professionals allowed to perform abortions in Hungary. Conscientious objection is not generally allowed in Hungarian medical practice, but in the case of abortion there are specific legal provisions permitting its use. Medical practitioners invoking conscientious objections are obligated to both inform the patient in a “timely manner” about their objection and provide a referral.||Abortion specialists and OBGYNs are the only professionals allowed to perform abortions in Poland.||Abortion specialists and OBGYNs are the only professionals allowed to perform abortions in Slovakia. All medical practitioners in Slovakia have the right to conscientious objection including in the case of abortion administration, and they are not obligated to provide a referral to women they have turned away.|
Many large-scale international organizations have reached a consensus on recommended global abortion policy. The World Health Organization (WHO) included abortion within its 2019 list of essential health services, stating that access to safe abortion (preferably medical abortion in the first 12 weeks), sexual education, and contraceptive products are ways to reduce unnecessary deaths and improve the well-being of society. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner described abortion as a human right and stated that denying access to abortion “can amount to violations of the rights to health, privacy and, in certain cases, the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” In 2021, the EU voted that the rights to sexual and reproductive health are “fundamental pillars of women’s rights that cannot be watered down or withdrawn.” The vote included an emphasis on providing full abortion services in early pregnancy with provisions for abortion in later pregnancy. Additionally, the vote cautioned against clauses allowing for conscientious objection for abortion services, which put women at risk.
Despite joint membership within the EU and an implicit agreement to maintain standards set forward by the EU, the European Abortion Policies Atlas map demonstrates just how vast Europe’s legislative diversity is. In determining abortion “scores,” the IPPF looks at many variable indicators that demonstrate barriers and pressures in accessing abortion, the quality of the medical environment and quality of information access. The above chart synthesizes comparative information on abortion in Central Europe, providing a concise summary of the state of abortion policy in each country of study.
According to the IPPF, the Czech Republic is the most liberal of the Central European countries in abortion legislation. Czech residents and nationals may receive an abortion upon request until the 12th week of pregnancy, may receive an abortion up to 24 weeks in the case of a fetal defect, and at any time if there is a risk to the mother or a fatal defect in the fetus. Both surgical and medical abortions are available since 2013, and the cost of an abortion is covered by the state if there is a medical necessity. Abortion in the Czech Republic has been free of restrictions since 1986. The Czech Republic has fairly little internal conflict surrounding abortion legality, although controversy exists in regard to women’s reproductive rights. Koldiniská addresses the Czech Republic’s strict regulations regarding the right to give birth at home and the violation of Roma women through coercive sterilization after the birth of their second child. While the Czech Republic has served as an “abortion tourism destination” in light of Poland’s legislative changes, it is clear that reproductive freedom is not devoid of issues.
The IPPF finds that Hungary is the second most restrictive Visegrad country for abortion rights. It is placed only two spots above Poland on the European Abortion Policies Atlas map (2021) but earning an aggregate score of 43% on the map’s “Ranking Point Scale,” compared to Poland’s 16%. Similar to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, abortion is legal in Hungary up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to 24 weeks with provisions. Hungary differs in that women seeking an abortion are subject to a dissuasive counselling session and waiting period prior to the procedure, those claiming criminal grounds as reasoning must have legal proof of rape or incest, and special privileges of conscientious objection are given in the case of abortion (it is not permitted elsewhere in the medical field). As Viktor Orban’s tenure continues, concerns about women’s reproductive freedom are increasing in the state. Hungary symbolically signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration––a controversial anti-abortion declaration initiated under Donald Trump’s American government, highlighting a commitment to preventing abortion access. Concern about Orban’s political rhetoric and subtle changes in legislation have brought worry to the Hungarian populace, as nearly 90% of citizens support abortion as a woman’s decision.  Going forward, Hungary’s position on abortion is an area that should be monitored.
Slovakia has abortion policy relatively consistent with its Central European neighbours, Poland excluded. Abortion is legal in Slovakia upon request until the 12th week of pregnancy, after which it is legal in the case of severe determinant to the woman’s physical and mental health or life. After the 12th week, socioeconomic status is not a legal reason to receive an abortion. Women must receive written approval to receive an abortion from two medical practitioners and must endure a 48-hour waiting period. In November of 2021, a proposed amendment to increase the waiting period from 48 to 96 hours and ban advertisements for abortion services was narrowly defeated in parliament. Despite the defeat, the proposed amendment has sparked outrage in society and has caused concern about future abortion rights.
Although imperfect, abortion policies in most of Central Europe conform to international standards. The state of reproductive freedom and sexual education is not uniform nor impenetrable in Central Europe, despite widespread popular support for freedom of choice. Within this realm, Central Europe cannot be isolated from its Western neighbours: Italy, Ireland, Greece, and the United States are among the many examples of Western states that have faced scrutiny for their provision of sexual and reproductive health. The Geneva Consensus Declaration, while non-binding, is exemplary of how the power in anti-abortion sentiment, and rising concerns in Hungary and Slovakia, are indicative of a political trend. Even still, throughout the state’s development, political rhetoric and citizens’ views are unique to each country. Poland remains an outlier in Central Europe for its harsh legislation, but what has led Poland to restrict abortion when the its neighbours have not? This section has illustrated both similarities and differences between Central European states, and the following section articulates the pathways that a state takes to reach the status quo.
The Case of Poland
This section turns to the case of Poland to identify variables and circumstances that have shaped Poland’s position toward abortion legality. The overarching intention of this work is to demonstrate the intricacies and uniquities of the Polish case. It is argued that all four of the Central European states in review have equally unique experiences that have led to their present-day stance. This section dives into Polish history, making note of landmark decisions, major events, and the political landscape at multiple points in time, ranging from the early 1900s to the present day. Through this section, three variables are isolated as driving Poland’s abortion trajectory:
- Historical forced, needs-based abortion liberation
After over a century of divided occupation between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Russian Empire, and Prussia, Poland regained its independence in 1918, at the end of WWI. Referred to then as the Second Polish Republic, the newly independent state embarked on a state and nation-building process, guided by democracy and the expansion of rights on par with much of the Western world. Leszczawski-Schwerk takes a feminist approach to Poland’s postwar re-nationalization. The author finds the positionality of women in postwar Polish politics was progressive but limited, especially so for minorities and immigrant women. Women in powerful positions were subject to harassment from coworkers and their work in politics was often likened to conservative gender roles (i.e. female politicians likened to “mothers” of the nation). Moreover, Leszczawski-Schwerk finds that women in politics balanced their own internalized limitations while arguing “in the name of their nation linking discursively national and feminist purposes”––a point which the author uses to demonstrate that a woman’s ‘value’ was inherently linked to conformity with national interests.
Leszczawski-Schwerk’s piece highlights the positionality of women within postwar Poland. While feminism was incorporated within state and nation-building processes, women were still subject to traditional gender roles and viewed as subordinate to male colleagues. Keeping with this slow-but-steady feminist development, in 1932, abortion was decriminalized for the first time in Polish history, applying only in the case of medical risk or criminal grounds– a comparatively liberal law within Europe at the time. In 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, abortion in Poland was made fully available upon request. Hitler’s intent was Polish population control, as abortion was liberated and encouraged for Polish women but strictly forbidden for German women. In 1956, under the Soviet occupation, abortion remained available upon request with an additional provision for abortion due to “difficult living situations,” also as a means of population control and easing the socioeconomic burdens of women with multiple children. With minor changes, abortion legality remained this way until the dissolution of the USSR and Poland’s regained independence in 1989.
While Poland’s history of relative abortion freedom can be framed as a puzzling precedent for the state’s current restrictive approach, Poland’s history can be problematized in two ways. First, decades of forced abortion policies for political purposes by occupiers has inevitably led to a proliferation of polarized opinions in the post-Communist era. Second, the lack of women in executive positions and the failure to adequately incorporate female voices into politics has led to a feminist movement in the post-Communist era. This has created two opposing camps: Those who seek to revive traditional moral codes (i.e. Roman Catholicism, nationalism, strong family structures, naturalism, etc.) and those who seek to establish their political voice and influence public policy. The scars of imposed top-down, needs-based (rather than bottom-up, activist-driven) abortion legislation stripped Poland of autonomy and turned abortion into an issue representative of Polish identity, collective history, and individual voices. For some, abortion is far removed from feminist discourse and represents the crux of progressiveness versus conservatism that is embodied within modern debates between sovereignty and collectiveness (i.e. in the EU, international organizations), between Western models versus Eastern models and between globalism versus nationalism. For others, abortion as an issue of affirming one’s positionality within the state and discourse: It is a fight to establish a woman’s autonomy over her own body and her inherent value as a human over the fetus that grows inside her. For the latter, abortion discourse is rooted in breaking free of traditionalist chains and passive, instrumental use of female bodies for political motives. The present Polish polarity is a competition rooted within different conceptions of identity and autonomy, rooted in the legacies of occupation and a demonstration of the struggles of continued transition in the Polish state.
- The role of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church in fighting communism
Since the 2020 and 2021 protests throughout Poland, the Polish Catholic Church continues to be a topic of heavy criticism. Scholars, citizens, and international organizations have established the Church’s entrenchment within the Polish government and have hypothesized about the influence of Catholic structures on the function of the state. The Catholic Church’s involvement in Polish governance is understood as an extension of its support for the anti-socialist Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in the 1980s through 90s––the Church played a crucial role in removing Communism from Poland and supporting the state’s transition to democracy. In the wake of communist dissolution, Poland’s comparatively lax 1993 abortion law was widely referred to as “the compromise” between public opinion and the Church’s will by allowing abortion in three circumstances: In the case of a fetal defect, pregnancy resulting from crime, and risk to the woman’s health or life. In October of 2020, when the 1993 bill was deemed unconstitutional and PiS introduced some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU, both the government and the Roman Catholic Church came under fire domestically and within the international community.
Dorota Szelewa emphasizes that the fall of Communism gave the Catholic Church a front-row seat to policy discussions and the media. Throughout the Communist regime the Catholic Church maintained an active opposition to abortion legalization and, upon Polish liberalization, it became the first matter of business where they exercised newfound influence. By 1990, Poland had introduced an executive order requiring women to consult with three medical practitioners and a psychologist prior to receiving an abortion, as well as introducing conscientious objection for doctors. By 1993, an amendment was made to abortion legislation, balancing the Catholic Church and Christian National Union’s anti-abortion advocacy with pro-abortion NGOs within Poland. The 1993 amendment allowed abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy only in the case of severe fetal defect, risk to the woman’s life or health, and pregnancy proven to be on criminal grounds, all of which had to be confirmed by a medical practitioner. Szelewa finds that in the post-Communist era up until the 2004 EU accession, the Catholic Church utilized three forms of influence over abortion legislation in Poland: “evidence and advice, public campaigning, lobbying and negotiation.” Through these streams, the Church was an important voice in the state’s political trajectory.
In providing support for Poland’s internal resistance to Soviet occupation, the Catholic Church successfully framed itself as a protector of Polish interests and a beacon of Polish conservatism. Having established trust within the populace and entrenching political power through deals and favours, the Church managed to align itself with important political players and maintain its voice in abortion debates. They exercised their influence through evidence and advice spread to church followers, through public campaigning with anti-abortion demonstrations, preachings and presentations, as well as through lobbying and negotiation – ultimately flexing their power and recruiting support. Amid modern challenges to the status quo, the Polish Church firmly represents the former camp in battles between progressivism and conservatism, sovereignty, and collectivism, between Western and Eastern models and between globalism and nationalism. The October 2020 ruling is a crude reminder that Poland has yet to break the link between the state and the Catholic Church––not as something inherent to the country or its ‘Easternness’, but rather as a result of historical circumstances.
- Perceived crisis of the European Union
The final variable explored is how the perceived crisis of the EU has informed the Polish abortion debate. This phenomenon is observable from the 2010s through the present, as the initial thrills of EU accession wore off and concerns about sovereignty and national identity have come to the forefront of conversation. The ruling party has used its tenure since 2015 to redefine Poland as Catholic, conservative, and faithful to the ruling party. The party, much like the Church, presents itself as the protector of true Polish values and the representative of Polish interests. They present themselves as sources of tradition and memory, often conjuring memories of wartime oppression and the Holocaust to cement their emotional influence. Paired with the Church, they remain on the former side of the debate between globalism and nationalism, countered by the EU and liberal policies domestically (i.e. abortion).
In early 2020, amid public outcry, Polish President Andrzej Duda delayed the abortion policy amendments, leading to no end. The October ruling came into effect in January 2021, officially forbidding practitioners from providing abortion services except in the case of pregnancy resulting from a crime or risk to the mother’s health or life. While Duda’s initial hesitance indicates a consideration of international and domestic concerns, ultimately the party’s will was maintained. Polish NGOs both domestically and abroad have made strong efforts to negotiate with PiS and to support Polish women in seeking medical services. The EU has repeatedly condemned Poland’s restrictive laws and urged the state to act in accordance with the fundamental rights that serve the EU values. Additionally, neighbouring countries have offered abortion services to Polish women travelling outside of Poland. Poland’s policy toward abortion is among the strictest in the EU, and this restriction is framed as an integral element of protecting true ‘Polishness.’
Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto leader. Photo: Piotr Drabik/Wikimedia Commons. No changed made. View the license here.
Keeping with studies of illiberalism throughout Europe, regressive policies such as the abortion ban in Poland, Viktor Orban’s negative approach to immigrants, and Matteo Salvini’s controversial policies toward refugees, among other examples, are demonstrable efforts to resist the influence of external forces within the sovereign bounds of a state. There is a strong body of literature that discusses the roots of nationalism and repressive policies, especially those within the trends of illiberalism that are viewed all around the world. Kramer articulates the real impact of abortion debate in Polish political life: In many cases, abortion takes on a symbolic “stand-in” role for other issues, mostly relating to Polish nationhood and perceived crises within the EU. Perceived crisis of the EU refers to the perceived moral crisis that accompanies waves of immigrants entering previously homogeneous states, the controversial and norm-upending policies of abortion liberation or suggesting changes in gendered norms, the normalization of LGBTQ+ communities, etc. As the global norms deviate further and further from traditional Polish values, political parties and influential actors gain more traction for their traditionalist causes by invoking fear about what lies on the other side of change and by leveraging Poland’s history of repression and lost identity to encourage active participation.
Discussion and Conclusion
This essay has identified three variables that provide an explanation for Poland’s pathways of development of abortion legislation. First, its history of occupation and the forced liberalization of abortion that has led to a development of numerous analyses and opinions. Second, the crucial role of the Catholic Church during the anti-communist movement in Poland provided the Church with political traction and popular credibility, thus giving it influential power over the state. Finally, a perceived crisis of the EU that is representative of a contest between nationalism and progressivism, thus allowing politicians to position themselves as protectors of Poland’s history and traditionalism in the face of moral corruption.
This essay did not explore the development of gender roles in the post-Communist transition era, approximately between 1995 to 2010, which could have presented an interesting variable for discussion: How did the Polish state and society structure gender roles after regime transition and how does this structure affect modern day? Another potential area for future exploration is the speed at which the 2020 abortion legislation was suggested and implemented, as examined by Jonason, Zjenjowski, Szymaniak and Leniarska. The speed of implementation perhaps exacerbated feelings of helplessness on the pro-abortion activist side and, set within the context of already-perceived subversion within state processes, invoked a strong reaction that explains the magnitude of the 2020 and 2021 protests. Additionally, closer attention to popular opinion on abortion and abortion legality in Central Europe may have been beneficial. Through the above work, it is strongly hypothesized that state policies are not necessarily indicative of the populace.
In identifying these unique variables, this essay argues that Poland’s trajectory is shaped by multiple historical factors and politically and culturally unique circumstances. Through the Central Europe in Context section, it is found that an East-West division can be established, with three of four Visegrad countries being listed in the bottom tiers of the 2021 European Abortion Policies Atlas map, joined only by their Southeastern and Eastern neighbours. Yet the Czech Republic stands out as a counterpoint for this finding, sitting in the fourth percentile among many Western states. As is illustrated through the case of Poland, each Central European state has a unique history that informs its positionality. The identified variables can be applied in a similar case study of each state and will demonstrate different phenomena. There may be some overlap, but the findings in this essay indicate that the use of a strict East-West framework fails to capture an accurate concept of Europe’s complexities.
- Sammy Westfall, “Poland’s Abortion Law under Scrutiny after Pregnant Woman Dies in Hospital,” The Washington Post, November 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/03/abortion-law-poland-debate/; DW, “Poland: Protests Erupt over Abortion Law after Woman Die,” DW News, November 6, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/poland-protests-erupt-over-abortion-law-after-woman-dies/a-59744178.
- Westfall, “Poland’s Abortion Law”; PolishNews, “Death of a 30-Year-Old Pregnant Izabeala in a Hospital in Pszczyna. Mother of Deceased: I Will Never Come to Terms With it,” Polish News, November 4, 2011, https://polishnews.co.uk/death-of-30-year-old-pregnant-izabela-in-a-hospital-in-pszczyna-mother-of-the-deceased-i-will-never-come-to-terms-with-it/.
- BBC, “Poland Clarifies Abortion Law after Protests over Mother’s Death,” BBC News, November 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59206683; Matthew Day, “Polish Government has ‘blood on its hands’ after first woman dies from tougher abortion law,” The Telegraph, November 2, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/11/02/polish-government-has-blood-hands-first-woman-dies-tougher-abortion/; Zaina Alibhai, “Death of Pregnant Woman Ignites Debate about Abortion Bans in Poland,” The Independent, November 5, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/abortion-bans-woman-dies-poland-b1952449.html.
- Amanda Taub, “In Poland, Protests Over Abortion Ban Could Revolutionize Politics,” The New York Times, December 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/world/europe/poland-abortion-protests.html ; Marc Santora, Monika Pronczuck, and Anatol Magdziarz, “Polish Women Lead Strike Over Abortion Ruling Amid Threats of Crackdown,” The New York Times, October 28, 2020, https:www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/world/Europe/poland-woman-abortion-strike.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article;
- Agnieszka Bień-Kacała, “Legislation in Illiberal Poland,” The Theory and Practice of Legislation, 9(2021); Anna Grzymala-Busse, “Poland’s Path to Illiberalism,” Current History 117, no. 797 (2018): 1-2, 19.
- Savita Halappanavar was an Irish woman of Indian origin who died in 2012 from septicemia after being denied an abortion while going through a miscarriage. Her story is often partially attributed to the 2018 66% in-favour vote to rid the Irish Eighth Amendment, a 1983 amendment that effectively banned abortion in Ireland. See Megan Specia, “How Savtia Halappanavar’s Death Spurred Ireland’s Abortion Rights Campaign,” The New York Times, May 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/world/europe/savita-halappanavar-ireland-abortion.html.
- Malta does not permit abortions under any circumstances. See International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), “European Abortion Policies Atlas,” 2021. https://europe.ippf.org/resource/european-abortion-policies-atlas
- Rozemarijn Dereuddre, Sarah Van de Velde, and Piet Bracke, “Gender Inequality and the ‘East-West’ Divide in Contraception: An Analysis at the Individual, the Couple, and the Country Level,” Social Science & Medicine 161 (2016): 1-12.
- Dereuddre, Van de Velde, and Bracke, “Gender Inequality and the ‘East-West’ Divide in Contraception,” 1-4.
- Dereuddre, Van de Velde, and Bracke, “Gender Inequality and the ‘East-West’ Divide in Contraception,” 3-4.
- Dereuddre, Van de Velde, and Bracke, “Gender Inequality and the ‘East-West’ Divide in Contraception,” 5-7.
- Dereuddre, Van de Velde, and Bracke, “Gender Inequality and the ‘East-West’ Divide in Contraception,” 6-7.
- Jirina Kocourkova, “Relationship between Abortion and Contraception: A Comparative Socio-Demographic Analysis of Czech and Slovak Populations,” Women & Health 56, no. 8 (2016): 885-905.
- Rozemarijn Dereuddre, Bart Van de Putte, and Piet Bracke, “Ready, Willing, and Able: Contraceptive Use Patterns Across Europe,” European Journal of Population 32, no. 4 (2016): 543-573.
- Anette Hofmann, Julia K. Neumann, and Peter Zweifel, “Risky Health Decisions under Regulatory Constraints: Abortion Tourism in Switzerland,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 59, no. 3 (2019): 203-237.
- Dereuddre et al., “Ready, Willing, and Able: Contraceptive Use Patterns Across Europe”, 543-573.
- Kocourkova, “Relationship between Abortion and Contraception,” 895-902.
- Hofmann et al., “Risky Health Decisions,” 212-224.
- Shaun Walker and Anna Koslerova, “Polish Women Travel Abroad for Abortions Ahead of Law Change,” The Guardian, December 13, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/world/2020/dec/13/polish-women-travel-abroad-for-abortions-ahead-of-new-law; Daniel Tilles, “Legal Abortion Drops 65% in Year since Poland’s near-Total Ban but “Abortion Tourism’ Booms,” Notes from Poland, October 21, 2021, https://notesfrompoland.com/2021/10/21/legal-abortions-drop-65-in-poland-in-year-since-near-total-ban-but-abortion-tourism-booms/.
- Joakim Kulin and Bart Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe: An East-West Divide?” European Sociological Review 31, no. 4 (2015): 418-432.
- Peter K. Jonason, Marcin Zajenkowski, Kinga Szymaniak, and Maria Leniarska. “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion: Religiousness, Morality, and Situational Affordances,” Personality and Individual Differences 184 (2022): 111229. 1-6.
- Kulin and Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe, 419-421.
- Peter K. Jonason, Marcin Zajenkowski, Kinga Szymaniak, and Maria Leniarska. “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion”, 424-429.
- Kulin and Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe,” 425-429.
- Kulin and Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe,” 422, 427, 429.
- Kulin and Meulemen substantiate this by demonstrating a similar pattern in West and East Germany: the former demonstrates stronger affection for self-transcendence and welfare state support, the latter demonstrates stronger affection for conservatism and more conservative welfare state support, potentially an indication of the lingering effects of communism. They also note that by referencing a positive effect of conservative values on welfare state support in older cohorts in Eastern Europe, indicating a nostalgic fondness toward the former egalitarian system in older generations (427, 429).
- Kulin and Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe,” 421-425.
- Jonason et al., “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion,” 1.
- Jonason et al., “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion,” 3.
- Jonason et al., “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion,” 5.
- Taub, “In Poland, Protests over Abortion Ban Could Revolutionize Politics.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/world/europe/poland-abortion-protests.html.
- Santora et al., “Polish Women Lead Strike over Abortion Ruling amid Threats of Crackdown.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/world/europe/poland-women-abortion-strike.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
- Jonason et al., “Attitudes towards Poland’s Ban on Abortion,” 2-3.
- Conscientious objection is the act of objecting to an action, responsibility or duty on the grounds of individual values, morals or religion. It is often debated in the medical field, especially concerning contentious topics such as abortion.
- Valerie Fleming, Beate Ramsayer, and Teja Škodič Zakšek, “Freedom of Conscience in Europe? an Analysis of Three Cases of Midwives with Conscientious Objection to Abortion,” Journal of Medical Ethics 44, no. 2 (2017): 105.
- Fleming, Ramsayer, and Škodič Zakšek, “Freedom of Conscience in Europe?”, 106-107.
- Fleming, Ramsayer, and Škodič Zakšek, “Freedom of Conscience in Europe?”, 106, 108.
- Sammy Westfall, “Poland’s Abortion Law under Scrutiny after Pregnant Woman Dies in Hospital,” The Washington Post, November 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/03/abortion-law-poland-debate/.
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- Alina Rzepnikowska, “Racism and Xenophobia Experienced by Polish Migrants in the UK before and after Brexit Vote,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45, no. 1 (2018): 61-77.
- Ivan Kalmar, White But Not Quite: Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt, (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2022, forthcoming).
- Kulin and Meuleman, “Human Values and Welfare State Support in Europe: An East-West Divide?” 429.
- International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), “European Abortion Policies Atlas,” 2021. https://europe.ippf.org/resource/european-abortion-policies-atlas.
- World Health Organization, “Maintaining essential health services: operational guidance for the COVID-19 context,” 2020. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-2019-nCoV-essential_health_services-2020.2. See sections 2.1.4 and Annex.
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights,” United Nations Office of Human Rights, accessed March 24, 2022. https://www.ohchr.org/en/node/3447/sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-rights
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- Kristina Koldinská. “The Policy on Gender Equality in the Czech Republic,” European Parliament. Policy Department C: Citizen’s Rights and Constitutional Affairs (2015): 22-27.
- Koldinská, “The Policy on Gender Equality in the Czech Republic,” 27-28.
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- International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). European Abortion Policies Atlas. 2021. https://europe.ippf.org/resource/european-abortion-policies-atlas
- Edward Szekeres, “Activists Fear Abortion at Risk in Hungary from Orban’s Family-First Crusade,” Balkan Insight, November 19, 2020. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/11/19/activists-fear-abortion-at-risk-in-hungary-from-orbans-family-first-crusade/.;
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- International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). European Abortion Policies Atlas. 2021. https://europe.ippf.org/resource/european-abortion-policies-atlas
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- Leszczawski-Schwerk, “Dynamics of Democratization and Nationalization,” 814.
- Leszczawski-Schwerk, “Dynamics of Democratization and Nationalization,” 819.
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- Szelewa, “Killing ‘Unborn Children’?”, 742.
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- Szelewa, “Killing ‘Unborn Children’?”, 750.
- Szelewa, “Killing ‘Unborn Children’?”, 754.
- Szelewa, “Killing ‘Unborn Children’?”, 746.
- Grzymala-Busse, “Poland’s Path to Illiberalism,” 96.
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