Abort Mission: Inside Poland’s Largest Anti-Abortion Lobby Group
ONCE A SHINING EXAMPLE OF EUROPEAN INTEGRATION, democracy and prosperity, Poland embodies the opposite today.
Led by its national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, the country has turned away from many values that the EU holds as fundamental, like an independent judiciary, democracy and human rights. The nation that helped bring down the Soviet Union with the Solidarity movement in the late 1980’s now finds itself drifting towards one side of a new Iron Curtain—the side of “illiberal democracies” like Hungary, its frequent ally at an EU level.
Abortion is a major faultline. The Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a Warsaw-based pro-family legal institute, has wielded considerable influence in tightening restrictions on abortion since it was founded in 2013. In part due to Ordo Iuris’s work, termination of a pregnancy is permitted only if the mother’s life is under threat, if there is a foetal abnormality, or when pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.
The law enjoys widespread support in a country where 86% of the population identifies as Catholic and 65% consider abortion to be “morally inappropriate.” Even so, a 2016 citizens’ initiative called “Stop Abortion,” which garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures to ban abortion in cases of foetal abnormality, caused massive outrage among Poland’s liberal opposition and sparked the “Black Protests,” a wave of pro-choice demonstrations that swept across the country in October of that year.
“Contrary to common opinion, the Black Protest Movement is neither a bottom-up nor a spontaneous movement, as could be deduced from the Polish and foreign media reports,” says Rozalia Kielmans-Ratyńska, the director of the Ordo Iuris International Law Center. “The initiative was mainly funded by one source: the Global Fund for Women (GFW).”
She highlights the fact that the protests were planned and financed long before people actually took to the streets. “The financial support was granted in April 2016, long before the vivid discussion of the right to life began. It was directly after the start of the collection of signatures for the civic Stop Abortion project.”
Kielmans-Ratyńska also has an axe to grind when it comes to the way the media covered the events. “The media and Black Protest organizations were continuously misleading public opinion about the pro-life project, for instance by insinuating that it forbids prenatal tests. It has led to confusion and disinformation among citizens.”
Yet, while the media may have focused on the plight of the pro-choice protesters, the “pro-life project,” as she calls it, enjoys considerable support in Poland—and, according to Kielmans-Ratyńska, not only among the older generation.
“Poland’s younger generation is very much pro-life. This is a strong trend,” says Kielmans-Ratyńska. “According to the latest opinion polls, conducted by IBRiS in February 2019, the highest percentage of pro-life people is among the youngest citizens—75%.” For some Polish women who grew up under Communism, where abortion was made legal as far back as 1956, this is a major step back.
One way to understand the prevalence of pro-life attitudes is through the lens of the “Polak-Katolik” identity—the idea that, historically, Polish identity has been marked by the fusion of nation and faith.
When asked what Poland’s place in the EU should be, and whether she thinks the “Polak-Katolik” identity is compatible with the EU's values, Kielmans-Ratyńska replies that traditional (i.e., Christian) values are the bedrock of all social progress in Europe—including greater equality between men and women.
“In contrast to many regions in Europe, Polish women have an undeniable influence on economic growth,” she says. For instance, the number of women in managerial positions in public and private sectors is one of the highest in the whole world. The gender pay gap in Poland is one of the lowest in Europe.”
The driving force behind Poland’s surprising gender parity? For Kielmans-Ratyńska and Ordo Iuris, it’s tradition.
“We are convinced that such balanced type of growth derives from a strong devotion to traditional values in Poland,” she says. “Building on real values, such as family, marriage, the respect for freedom of conscience and religion, is what enables Poland to become the real center of Central and Eastern Europe.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue