Since the beginning of Law and Justice Party (PiS) rule in Poland, the right-wing government has accustomed Poles to regulations that counter the principles of democracy (e.g. the Constitutional Tribunal) or human decency (nepotistic hires). This time, however, PiS has taken a step further, deciding to support a bill proposed by an ultra-Catholic group of lawyers, Ordo Iuris. The bill would totally ban abortion, automatically criminalizing women for miscarriages — based on the assumption that they are not natural — as well as doctors who fail when carrying out medical procedures on a fetus. This was not only a horrendous attack on reproductive rights, but on women in general, who, simply put, would be deprived of medical care during pregnancy. I am using the past tense because after the so-called Black Protest demonstrations on Monday, October 3, which were attended by hundreds of thousands of women all over the country and the world, and were covered by major international media, the government backed off — but not before first ridiculing the protesting women as having “fun,” in the words of Witold Waszczykowski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although the draconian bill was put forward by Catholic fundamentalists, with even the clergy quietly disapproving, the PiS-led government had chosen to go ahead with it until the nationwide demonstrations.
The key question is: who was this law for?
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that Poland is one hundred percent devout Catholic (which it obviously is not) and that all women who become pregnant want to give birth. The law would not protect children, because doctors would not risk performing medical procedures to help fetuses, fearing potential lawsuits, and facing up to five years in prison. It obviously would not protect women, since without proper medical care pregnancy could become a game of life and death. The logical response to the bill would be to avoid pregnancy altogether, unless a woman is ready for death or major health issues — both hers and the child’s — as a duty of religious sacrifice.
Even more viciously, the proposed bill recommended incarceration for women and doctors in violation of the law for up to five years, while rapists face a maximum of four years in prison. Following this logic, it would be the rapists who could end up benefiting the most, and not the partners of women who actually care about their wellbeing. The rapists do not have to care about the child or the mother, and as experience shows the prison time they face is usually much less than the four years. In essence, the proposed bill was a sadistic attack against women, whose only resort, if the law were passed, would be prayers to god.
Poland has a long tradition of idolizing sacrifice in the name of the nation, going back to the partitions of the late 18th century. For over a hundred years, until the end of World War I after which the Polish state was reestablished, sacrificing one’s life for the nation was deemed the act of utmost patriotism. For that matter the Virgin Mary — the symbol of the mother suffering after the loss of her son — remains an icon in the predominantly Catholic country. There is perverse pleasure taken in suffering in the name of god, as fundamentalists of all religions know too well. Too bad in this case the only sufferers were to be women who did not ask for it. Male commentary on the bill was targeted at women, such as when the popular ex-punk rock star, currently far right politician, Paweł Kukiz stated: “You should have known, who you gave your body to.”
However, even among women, solidarity is not universal, and Catholic values mix with two extreme images of women, the sinful whore vs. the innocent sufferer. A recurring theme in discussions among women is self-shaming or shaming one another. As long as women love to hate each other, using “the will of god” as a weapon to justify their own animosities, misogynists will succeed in objectifying women in the name of religious zeal.
Self-hatred in the name of the Catholic god remains strong among women in Poland, for who wouldn’t want to be chosen the way the Virgin Mary was? For men, this only makes it easier to objectify women. These are indeed horrifying times, when debates over fundamental issues such as reproductive rights and the right to medical support boil down to battles between those who can objectify and those who accept objectification. Fundamentally, it is a power struggle over sexuality, over the roles to be played by men and women in society, with the Catholic religion being used to justify misogyny inside and outside the Catholic church.
But then, women went to the streets. In terms of lawmaking, the victory may be small: for now, the so-called “abortion compromise” from 1993 is upheld, which makes it almost impossible for women in smaller towns to get an abortion in the three circumstances when it is allowed — rape, severe illness of the fetus, and severe health threat to the mother — as doctors cite a “conscience clause” that allows them to avoid providing the service. Furthermore, the current government is used to demonstrations, which have been held by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy nearly every two weeks since the PiS-incited stalemate over the Constitutional Tribunal last year.
However, now the anger is real. Fearing for their health and their lives, Polish women will not back down. PiS, despite the haughty claims of the party’s representatives, has stopped feeling so secure.