Photo credit: Grzegorz Zukowski / Shutterstock.com
To take back women’s rights, we need power, commitment and determination. And we need to be unapologetic in claiming the obvious: women are human beings with moral agency and the right to control our own bodies.
When Roe v. Wade was overturned on June 24, the world gasped in disbelief. Polish women did not, however. We had seen it coming, and we know – more or less – what comes next. Since the 1980s, Poland has been a hive of anti-choice activity, one of the few places in the world where the anti-abortion movement’s dreams have become reality. Take a look at a map of reproductive rights in Europe and you will locate Poland at once: bright red, the only country on the continent with an almost total ban.
The anti-abortion movement has a two-tier strategy: there is politics and there is culture. In politics, these actors will support anyone willing to give them access to power, especially the courts, no matter how corrupt and immoral. Donald Trump and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, are good examples of this pattern. Wherever you look, you will see ultraconservatives engaged in building symbiotic relationships with populist right-wing parties, helping them win elections. When this happens, they push for restrictions on women’s rights and bans on LGBT rights.
The cultural tier has to do with language and public imagination. The strategy is far more insidious than just taking part in public debate. Anti-choice propaganda is relentless, loud, gruesome, and repetitive. It ignores reality, it appeals to deep-felt anxieties. It can be brutal, as, with images of cut-up, bloody fetuses paraded in front of schools or driven around on the sides of vans. Or eerily sentimental, as with hundreds of thousands of billboards screaming at you from Poland’s streets and highways: “Where are these children?”. They mean those that have never been born. It’s oppressive, but ultimately effective in silencing opposition.
Is Poland different from the rest of Europe because it is more Catholic? Not really. Social views on abortion are only a bit more conservative than those in Croatia, Czechia, or Hungary, with polls showing that most citizens want abortion to be legal in at least some cases.
What really sets Poland apart is the political influence of the Catholic Church as an institution, its ability to exert pressure on political parties, the media, and the courts. This alliance has much in common with bonds linking Republicans to the religious right in the US. Ever since the late 1970s, US Evangelicals and Catholics have managed to dictate the Republican platform on gay rights and abortion. The deal is simple: give us the courts, and we will deliver the votes. So, when Roe v. Wade fell, I wasn’t particularly surprised. My heart went out to the women in the red states, now trapped in what increasingly resembles Margaret Atwood’s patriarchal dystopia, Gilead. Polish women have lived there for over two decades. And here is what we have learned…
Lesson #1: Never underestimate the power of ultraconservatives in the courts
In October 2020, we got a sneak preview of what would soon happen in the US. The Polish equivalent of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Tribunal – stuffed with judges appointed by Poland’s populist right – tightened the existing legislation on abortion. All pregnant women must now give birth, including those carrying severely malformed or terminally ill foetuses. Massive demonstrations followed – the largest in all of Poland’s history, in fact – but the law remains in place.
Two exceptions exist: a pregnancy resulting from rape and incest, or a risk to the woman’s life. Of course, anti-choice groups want these exceptions struck out, too. From their point of view, innocent ‘unborn babies’ need saving no matter how conceived, and a woman’s life is worth no more than that of her child. In the meantime, these groups do all they can to limit access by intimidating prospective providers. They also engage in campaigns informing rape-victims (including Ukrainian refugees) that abortion is off limits in Poland, no matter the circumstances.
Lesson #2: Don’t expect your opponents to stop short of cruelty
Because these groups won’t. All exceptions must go, all loopholes must be closed – such is the logic of foetal citizenship, the underlying principle of anti-choice legislation. Women’s suffering – and occasional deaths – are a price they are willing to pay. The religious right will not relent until they get a total ban on abortion. In the US, this probably means a constitutional amendment.
Poland’s 2020 court verdict and its aftermath are best seen as the most recent episode in a long series. Abortion has been effectively banned in Poland since January 1993, when the so-called “compromise bill” passed through parliament despite massive social dissent. That a near-total ban was called a “compromise” is itself outrageous. In fact, two groups of men – Catholic bishops and political party leaders – had struck a deal, disregarding (and silencing) public opinion.
Two and a half decades later, the religious right is making what for them is the logical next step: pushing for a complete ban. They tried to get it through parliament in 2016 and 2018, but failed, partly thanks to massive protests. This time they used the courts and succeeded. There are two Polish sayings that capture the dynamic rather accurately: “Lock the doors and they’ll come through your window”; and “Give them a finger and they take your arm.”
They want it all, but are willing to wait and never seem to tire. Along the way, they accept enormous suffering as the inevitable cost – other people’s suffering, that is, mostly that of poor women unable to get help outside the system. The moral absolutism of the ‘pro-life’ position precludes compromises. It’s pretty simple: if “innocent unborn persons” must be saved, then women must be allowed to die. The mainstreaming of this immoral worldview results in a kind of moral numbness in the general population. Pro-life is really pro-death.
Lesson #3: Anti-abortion laws do not stop abortion, but have real and toxic consequences
In the early 2000s, the Polish abortion underground was estimated at 70,000 to 200,000 terminations annually. In 2004, Poland joined the EU and abortion migration (or “abortion tourism”, as it is called here) became the more popular solution. Germany, Holland, Austria and Slovakia are preferred destinations. One hears of clinics close to the border, where the flow of Polish patients is so heavy that most of the doctors are Polish, too. Then, of course, there is pharmaceutical abortion, ordered online from abroad. You can get the pills through the “Abortion Without Borders Network” – the phone number is a common form of pro-choice graffiti. Hard to estimate its scale, but I am told it’s the most popular solution in early stages of pregnancy.
So, if women get abortions anyway, you may ask, why does it matter whether it’s legal or not? It matters immensely. The law may not prevent abortion, but it generates endless stress, humiliation, and costs. It is a form of harassment; it reduces women to second-class citizens. The people directly affected by the ban are the poor, the very young, the socially vulnerable, victims of domestic violence, and those in need of immediate medical intervention. In fact – as US feminists are now discovering – the abortion ban exacerbates social and economic inequality already in place.
There are also indirect effects: the ban affects women’s status in general, by generating an atmosphere of shame, fear and secrecy around our sexual lives. Are unwanted children born more often than elsewhere? I suspect they are. To me, the abortion ban explains Poland’s widespread child abuse, the shocking number of children left in legal limbo in foster families and orphanages, and the occasional gruesome stories of infanticide. But real children are of no concern to those with their eyes set on heaven. To my mind, the anti-abortion position is a form of religion, an aggressive one, with its own version of reality, its own rituals and iconography. Which brings us to…
Lesson #4: Beware of talking fetuses
Anti-choice propaganda creeps up on you gradually, almost imperceptibly. Before you know it, it’s everywhere – in your kid’s schoolbooks, in movies and TV series, on your Facebook feed and on billboards in your town. In the last few years, Poland has witnessed several massively funded billboard campaigns featuring gigantic luminous fetuses declaring how old they were.
The idea of fetal citizenship – or the “sanctity of unborn life” – creeps into media outlets and popular culture, anti-choice language and imagery, gradually colonizing the public sphere. Once this happens, women’s full citizenship is no longer a given. In Poland, the word “fetus” has virtually disappeared from public discourse, displaced by “child” and “baby”; “pregnant woman” has long made way for “mother”; the very word “abortion” is routinely replaced by “killing unborn life” or “murder”. Oddly, it’s not just the right-wing media that reproduce this biased language. It has crept into everyday speech, it can be found in liberal outlets. Mainstream psychologists seriously contemplate “post-abortion syndrome”; “abortion survivors” would give public lectures. The anti-choice worldview undermines what seems obvious: that women, pregnant or not, are moral agents with bodies and a right to health care.
Lesson #5: This will sound cynical but is true nonetheless: the shock wears off
In the cultural climate created by anti-abortion laws and anti-abortion propaganda, women’s suffering soon becomes invisible, just a part of life. Since 1993, Poland’s doctors, hospitals and, finally, entire regions have declared themselves abortion-free – that is, unwilling to provide this service even to rape victims, even to save lives. There are exceptions, but most members of the medical profession have adjusted to existing laws remarkably well: they routinely deny their patients not just abortion, but also pre-natal tests, since wanting one suggests that a woman might request a termination later. Patients die occasionally – those without resources or in need of immediate medical help. A few have died in hospitals, surrounded by medical staff. It would have been easy to save them, but help was denied to the woman, because the “unborn baby” came first. Such cases get publicity, of course. But they don’t change the status quo. Women have simply learned that doctors can’t be trusted
The media have also adjusted. Over the years, abortion has become a dodgy topic, one that both journalists and politicians prefer to avoid. The view that women are human beings with the right to decide if, and when, to reproduce is branded as extremist, radical, and somehow crude. Following 1993, the religious right was busy pushing for increasingly restrictive laws, but the liberal-left did not really push back. Instead, they dodged the question. When mentioned, it was addressed in a cowardly, apologetic way: “it’s a tragedy, but is sometimes necessary”, “it is morally wrong, and should be prevented”. Such defensiveness, of course, only emboldens the religious right.
Lesson #6: Thoughts on how to win abortion rights back
I cannot tell you how to do it, since we have had no such success ourselves. But I do have some thoughts on the matter. We have tried this and that over the decades, so we know a few things.
One is that any new “choice” is no rival to “life”. Over the years, Polish feminists have tried various tones, vocabularies and arguments, hoping to mobilize the opposition and bring onboard people who are not sure what to think. We stayed with “choice” for a while, but eventually found it is too abstract, too cool and no rival to talking fetuses, “murder” and “sanctity of life”. We tried earnest talk of “reproductive justice” – a rhetoric that emphasizes the social and economic aspect of the ban, but the very word “reproductive” seems off-putting to the general public. For a time, thanks to a fearless feminist group called Abortion DreamTeam, provocative and cheerful slogans like “abortion is ok” won the day, emboldening women, countering the shame, but, arguably, antagonizing those in the middle. That was a huge step forward, but what appears to work best – what worked in Ireland and brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in Poland in 2016 and 2020 – is strong, emotional language appealing to personal experience, empathy, solidarity. That, and personal storytelling.
Ireland’s “Repeal the 8th” campaign worked because it broke the silence around women’s experiences of abortion and appealed to a collective sense of goodness, to everyday moral sensibility. Personal stories played a crucial role, collected and circulated by the thousand. The overall message was not about ‘individual choice’, but rather collective responsibility and empathy. Life is hard and abortion is simply a part of life. Your loved ones – daughter, sister, wife – may need one; in fact, she may have already had one. Irish scholar Rebecca Anne Barr reflected after the victory: “The referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment was won by narrative. The telling of stories from individual women took on the power of narrative: the cumulative energy of all storytelling.”
Public mourning of the ban’s victims also appears to be effective in galvanizing support – Savita Halappanavar’s case was a game-changer in Ireland; the death of Izabela from Pszczyna brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in Poland, in a massive candle-lit vigil. “You will never walk alone”, “Forgive us, sister”; “Not one more”, “Stop torturing women” – such slogans have largely replaced the more abstract pro-choice banners of earlier decades.
But the fact is we need more than stories, slogans and candle-lit vigils to stop the onslaught of politicized religious fundamentalism. We need a global movement with powerful political alliances. We need a strategy, funding and politicians who are as committed to women’s rights as the right is to defending fetal citizenship. Abortion bans – be they in Poland, Ireland, Spain, Alabama or Salvador – all happened due to effective political strategizing on the religious right, and the lack of adequate reaction on the liberal side.
Our opponents do not reflect public opinion, they silence it. Their harmful consequences – social, political, cultural – reach further and go deeper than anyone expects. These bans not only cause immense suffering, contribute to gender inequality and occasionally kill women – they also demoralize and desensitize entire populations. If we want women’s rights back, we need power, commitment, and determination. And we need to be unapologetic in claiming the obvious: women are human beings with moral agency and the right to control our own bodies.
Agnieszka Graffis an associate professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw. She is an activist, media commentator, and author of several books of feminist essays. Her most recent work is “Anti-gender Politics in the Populist Moment”, co-authored by Elżbieta Korolczuk (Routledge, 2022, open access).
A version of this essay first appeared in Balkan Insight and is reprinted here with permission.