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The War on Women: How Modern Polish Nationalism Relies on the Restriction of Reproductive Rights

Written by: Paulina Rabiega /Edited by: Jake Dickson

There seems to be a distinct association between being nationalist (and oftentimes conservative-leaning) and being vehemently anti-choice. That is true across the globe and has become extremely visible during the events taking place in Poland in recent months. For this reason, this article will attempt to provide a perspective on the government exploiting the nationalistic instincts of their electorate, the pro-choice initiatives from 2016 and 2020, and finally, to examine how the two are deeply interconnected in light of the ongoing protests.

The current ruling faction Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), the right-wing populist political party with a national conservative agenda, has been in power since 2015 when both parliamentary and presidential elections took place. Preying on the nationalist instincts rampant within their target demographic, they have been steadily becoming more authoritarian, which has included the restriction of women’s rights, as will be discussed below. Other clear exemplifications of the Polish government heading in that direction could be, amongst a multitude of others, the introduction of laws undermining judicial independence, filling the Constitutional Tribunal seats with supporters of their own party ideology, and pervading state media with loyalist propaganda.

In opposition to these developments, many people openly express their dissatisfaction with the current government. As previously mentioned, the attempts to restrict people’s reproductive rights have been a power grab of the ruling party from the beginning. On that note, it is also worth mentioning that while PiS seems to wish for fewer abortions by restricting access to them, it does not support comprehensive sex education, access to birth control or the “morning after” pill, or same-sex relationships. All of which would, of course, lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies and therefore, fewer abortions. Ever since 2016, attempts have been made to introduce an abortion ban in all cases except in a situation where the woman’s life is in danger. This has been heavily protested at the time, which ultimately led to the law not being passed for fear of further opposition. Now, in 2020, an organisation started during those 2016 strikes – Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (OSK) – is leading the charge against the judicial ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, which deemed the law authorising abortions for malformed fetuses to be unconstitutional. This effectively led to an almost complete ban on abortions, imposed by a judicial body consisting of people appointed by and loyal to the ruling party.

For context, in 2019, 1110 legal abortions have been carried out, according to the Polish Ministry of Health, 97% of which have been due to serious fetal defects. In this light, virtually almost all abortions that have been legal so far have just been banned. Additionally, some estimates show that up to 200,000 abortions are being carried out illegally or abroad, every year, and about 25% of all Polish women had terminated a pregnancy at some point in their lives. Hence, this ruling has led to massive protests, to the point where the Military Gendarmerie was ordered to help the police in containing them with the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons. The official reason quoted by the Prime Minister was the COVID-19 pandemic, which begs the question why the ruling party is so hell-bent on waging a war on women instead of trying to contain the virus raging through the country in the first place.

As briefly discussed above, the nationalist ideas proclaimed by the party in power are oftentimes contradictory to each other – how can one claim to be pro-life (essentially anti-choice), yet do nothing to support people in not getting pregnant in the first place? However, overall, the restriction of rights is quite deeply interconnected with nationalist tendencies of those in power. Thus, it is worth examining the reason, the significance, and the consequences of it.

Considering the current situation, the first question that comes to mind is why is limiting women’s rights the priority for the government during a global pandemic? At the time of these events, there have been significant spikes in both the number of cases and even more tragically, the number of deaths. Polish hospitals are overflowing with patients and there is simply not enough resources to care for all of them properly. Despite this, the ruling party chooses to focus on restricting abortions instead.

There can be no sure way to answer this, but it could be due to the fact that instead of dealing with the problem, it is much easier to distract people with something else. Especially when you’re a party pandering to the nationalist demographic – it must be much easier to forget the dangers of the virus and the incompetencies of the government, when one is busy forming cordons around churches to “protect them” from a largely imagined threat or attacking peaceful protesters with pepper spray, knives, or batons. As a populist party, PiS must ensure that it is still catering to the nationalist demographic that elected them in the first place, while simultaneously distracting them from the pandemic issues actually affecting them and their families. On a similar note, PiS relies heavily on the support of the church to further secure the voters. Claiming themselves to be a conservative party with Christian values is a very effective political tool. Especially because it speaks to a big part of their electorate, who perceive Catholic traditions as reinforcing the existing patriarchal power relations and therefore, as a part of their identity.

Lastly, PiS did not seem to learn from its 2016 mistakes and most probably did not expect the magnitude of the backlash they received. Perhaps, they were hoping the ban would fly under the radar of the people actually concerned about the pandemic and possibly, would be dismissed since it was a judicial ruling (nevermind, the judges installed in an authoritarian way and their loyalty to the party), rather than a proposed bill that would have to pass through the parliament and the president. This, however, did not happen and a rising number of people and organisations are speaking out against the newly imposed ban.

Ultimately, nobody really knows what the future might hold. This is very much so an ongoing situation. Thus far, some people who were supporting this decision heavily seem to be backtracking already and there are talks of a “compromise” as if the previous situation was not already a compromise. The ruling’s implementation and publication have been delayed thus far. However, it would also come as no surprise if the ruling was upheld and written into law. Though two things can be said for sure – (1) this was clearly a political decision made by the ruling party to pander to their nationalist supporters and (2) there will always be people fighting against this decision. One thing can be said ultimately, following one of the most popular protest slogans, ***** ***!

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