At first glance, Poland's culture war over a proposed total ban on abortion may seem familiar. A religiously driven, conservative proposal to end the practice draws abortion rights activists to the streets to protest, setting social media ablaze with heated discussion.
But the emergence of the fight, which is relatively new for Poles, obscures complicated and evolving views. Despite church attendance being down, as it is in much of the West, Poles have actually become less liberal on the issue over the last generation.
Poland already has some of the strictest rules on abortion in Europe. It is allowed only if a fetus is damaged, a mother’s life is threatened, or in cases of rape or incest. And while the majority of Poles support the laws as they stand, often overwhelmingly, that support has been eaten away over the past 20-odd years.
A poll by the Polish firm CBOS in March revealed that for all three cases, support has dropped since 1992, falling to 53 percent in the case of a damaged fetus from 71 percent two decades ago. While support for abortion remains high if a mother’s life is threatened or in cases of rape or incest, in both cases support has dropped, from 88 to 80 percent and 80 to 73 percent respectively.
Michał Łuczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw and the Center for the Thought of John Paul II, says the attitudes reflect the ways new laws shape culture, in this case a stricter law on abortion after the fall of communism. “Polish law says that abortion is illegal and a crime,” he says. “In the West it's different, abortion is regarded as a human right.”
An abortion-tolerant history
During the communist era, up to half a million abortions were performed every year. That compares to 1,812 in 2014, according to the latest official figures, although activists say tens of thousands are performed on the black market or in neighboring countries. While abortion was legal under a 1956 law only when a woman’s life was in danger, because of rape, or because of difficult life conditions, in practice, doctors performed abortion on demand.
When communism did fall – with the Roman Catholic Church playing a leading role in Poland’s transition to democracy – a political fight for more restrictive bans emerged immediately. A group of senators presented a bill in December 1989 pushing for abortion to be legal only when a woman’s life was in danger. Thirty-three percent of Poles approved at the time, while 59 percent were against the new restrictions.
It wasn’t until 1993 that a new bill, the one still standing, was voted in, denying women the opportunity for abortion for social or economic reasons.
Some attribute the drop in acceptance to the success of the pro-life camp, borrowing tactics from those in the US that rely on graphic imagery. Mirosława Grabowska, a sociologist from CBOS Institute, attributed her organization's polling results to legal awareness, church influence, and technology, “which paradoxically can foster pro-life attitudes,” she told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. “Women almost from the beginning of pregnancy can see the baby on the ultrasound pictures, and these pictures are suggestive.”
But views on abortion may be part of a growing conservatism in Polish society, which helped usher in the ultraconservative Law & Justice (PiS) in October elections.
Marcin Król, a philosopher and historian of ideas at the University of Warsaw, says that he believes abortion is less taboo than it was a generation ago. Still, he sees a more conservative society in response to the various crises afflicting Europe. “It’s a way of defense from changes within the social structure, because crises cause changes inside it,” he says. “During crisis, people don't want to take the risk, or go for something they don't know.”
Dr. Łuczewski says he sees conservatism growing especially among young people who have grown up with pro-European Union leaders who have disappointed. “Among young people, conservatism is a form of resistance against the old system,” he says. “Since 1989, the establishment in Poland was more or less liberal, so the revolt against it can't be liberal, too.”
Youths also have had a different experience on the specific issue of abortion. “During communism, abortions were performed very often; when you experience something so often you start to accept it, you don't see it as something bad. For younger generations abortion has always been illegal [since 1993] and perceived as a crime,” says Łuczewski.
The issue hit the headlines after Catholic bishops issued a public statement on March 31 calling for a total ban on abortion. A pro-life group has been attempting to gather 100,000 signatures to force the issue onto the legislative agenda. They have three months to do so. It comes as PiS has moved to remove state support for in vitro fertilization and make it harder for women to access “morning after” pills.
PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński said earlier this month that, as a Catholic, he supported the bishops’ statement on abortion, and that the parliament, where PiS has a majority, would likely feel the same way. He told reporters he was “convinced that a vast majority of the caucus, or perhaps all of it, will back the proposal.”
The government has since retreated from outright support, saying it will require more careful consideration, but the issue has exposed deep divides in society.
Having come into power in parliamentary elections in October with enough votes to govern alone – a first for modern Poland – PiS’s leadership has provoked a series of protests, over concerns that it is backsliding on democracy and forcing its traditional values on society.
While 90 percent of Poles declare themselves Catholic, when the bishops’ statement was read in churches, some Poles walked out. Pro-choice groups held rallies in many big cities across the country last weekend. According to a poll by the firm IBRIS for Rzeczpospolita daily published in March, 66 percent of respondents said they were against a total ban, while 30 percent were in favor.
Still, the pro-choice view looks different here than it might in other countries in the West. Katarzyna Świacka, an 18-year-old high school student in Warsaw, rues the influence of the church on the government. And she agrees with protesters that the law shouldn’t be touched.
Still, except in the three cases allowed under current law, she categorizes herself clearly. “I’m against abortion,” she says.
• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.