In the past 10 years, Poland has gone from a Third Wave transition success story to the fastest backsliding democracy in the world (V-Dem Institute Report, 2021). Rapidly declining quality of democracy has been ascribed to the populist right-wing government first formed by Law and Justice (PiS) in 2015 and its attacks on democratic institutions. However, discussing the Polish case solely from a backsliding perspective, and considering merely the newest developments often leaves scholars overly positive about the preceding period of liberal democratic stability. Attacks launched by PiS on civil rights and freedoms culminated with a 2020 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, which essentially made almost all abortions illegal. While the ruling came to many people as a shock and caused an intense reaction by civil society, it was, in fact, aligned with the logics of Poland’s post-transition democratic regime.
Abortion policy in pre-transition Poland focused on the mother’s health and wellbeing. The government at the time argued that due to limited birth control alternatives and the growing number of abortions performed unsafely, legal abortion was necessary to preserve women’s health, so that they can equally participate in economic production as well as reproduction of a strong, healthy nation. The law was passed in 1956 and in practice made abortion available on demand (Wężyk, 2021). The issue was actively contested by groups affiliated with the Catholic Church, which became a significant political player towards the end of the communist regime.
Throughout the communist regime, organised religion faced harsh repressions from the government, which made it a natural partner to any political challengers of the regime. The Church, with a Polish Pope as its Head, was a powerful ally and many agree that without its material and symbolic support Solidarność – the social movement gathering main opposition actors – would not have been able to successfully challenge the totalitarian government, but it was also dictating the terms of this alliance. Following the Church’s teachings on the matter and prompted by a promise of support in the upcoming elections, leaders of Solidarność opposed the 1956 law and committed to revoking it after winning seats in the Parliament.
Consequently, in January 1993 following lengthy debates and discussions, the first government to be elected in fully free elections adopted what is commonly known as the ‘abortion compromise’. It was meant to represent a middle ground between a full ban and a more liberal approach, but in reality, it became one of the strictest abortion regulations in Europe. This marked a significant win for the Catholic Church in Poland. The ‘compromise’ allowed for the procedure to be carried out legally in one of three cases: irreversible foetal impairment, threat to the mother’s life, or pregnancy resulting from a crime. The new law was meant to protect the foetus, shifting focus away from the wellbeing and rights of the mother, whose rights were severely limited. With efforts to organise around ‘women’s issues’ suppressed by Solidarność leaders (Penn, 2005), women had little to no say in the shape of future abortion laws and the emerging democratic state.
At the same time, the right to free, legal, and safe abortion is not only a guarantee of women’s health and wellbeing but also a prerequisite for women to be able to participate in political and social life as equal citizens. Any limits imposed on access to abortion mean that a woman can be stripped of a basic right to bodily autonomy if she happens to become pregnant. The Polish law, which recognises the foetus as its subject, and grants it certain rights, does so at the expense of the person, whose body carries it. The decision over women’s health and life is deposited in the hands of policymakers and doctors, who in many instances refuse to perform the procedure or deliberately prolong the diagnosis process, effectively forcing women to carry unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies to term (Broniarczyk, 2023). With their right to bodily autonomy in constant danger of being taken away, the mother is reduced to the reproductive functions of her body and stripped of agency over her own life. A person, who can at any moment lose this basic civil right, cannot fully participate in society and politics equally to men, whose rights are not at risk of being temporarily withdrawn.
In the Polish case, the process of democratisation significantly limited access to abortion, thus hindering women’s right to bodily autonomy, health, and life and with that their ability to participate in liberal democracy on equal grounds. This is not to say that all changes introduced during transition are negative, but its general democratic character is not a guarantee of equal rights and equal access to participation in the resulting democracy for all citizens. While democratisation in general is a positive process, it should not stop us from critically assessing some of its qualities and outcomes. In search for solutions to re-kindle trust in democracy, we must question these processes and keep having conversations about their shortcomings, to identify sources of mistrust and inequality. In Poland, some of these flaws come from the powerful position gained by the Catholic Church during democratic transformation, and its successful crusade to erase women and their rights from abortion legislation to substitute them with the rights of a foetus. This introduced a gendered regime, which prevents women from exercising full civil rights.
By Julia Palejko
Broniarczyk, Natalia. 2023. „Jak to się stało? 30 lat zakazu aborcji w Polsce.” Available at: https://oko.press/jak-to-sie-stalo-jakie-sa-konsekwencje-30-lat-zakazu-aborcji-w-polsce (Accessed on: 14.02.2023)
Nazifa Alizada, Rowan Cole, Lisa Gastaldi, Sandra Grahn, Sebastian Hellmeier, Palina Kolvani, Jean Lachapelle, Anna Lührmann, Seraphine F. Maerz, Shreeya Pillai, and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2021. Autocratization Turns Viral. Democracy Report 2021. University of Gothenburg: V-Dem Institute.
Penn, Shana. 2005. “Solidarity’s Secret: Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland.”
Wężyk, Katarzyna. 2021. Aborcja Jest. 1st ed. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Agora.
* The blog post is based on my master’s thesis written at UvA in 2022 under the supervision of Conny Roggeband. A further publication is planned on the same topic in the future.