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The Church reshapes Polish society (2016) The Church reshapes Polish society (2016)

Three Poles describe increased Church influence and restrictions on women since the end of Communism. “After 1989 women found that a democratically elected government gave them the right to vote in fair elections, but took away the right to decide about their own bodies.”     

Within a few months of the collapse of Communism in 1989, the Church began to assert itself.

As change washed over the country, abortion suddenly became the most important issue for the Polish right. The Catholic church bestowed on itself the right to intervene in political life, as a reward for its previous support of the opposition. Everything that could possibly be baptised was baptised: streets, fire engines, the stock exchange. [1]

Slow tightening of Church control

  Heavy Church involvement was reported in the presidential election at the end of 1990 and the parliamentary election in September 1991. [2] Although the public overwhelmingly disapproved of this, it served to show the politicians that they would be well advised to placate the Church.

  In 1990 religion classes in public schools were introduced in a way that was both illegal and unconstitutional. [3]

  A 1992 bill let the government revoke the licence of any broadcaster failing to respect “the religious feelings of the audience and Christian system of values.” [4] This was followed in 1997 by a new criminal code which specified that speech which “offends” religious faith may be punished by fines or imprisonment for up to three years.

  The 1993 “anti-abortion law”, was further tightened in 1997 to remove socio-economic reasons as a legal ground. [5] Abortion is now allowed (but just on paper — see below) only in cases of incest, rape, severe birth defects or danger to the woman's life. This criminalised 97% of the abortions that had been legal before, without remedying the lack of contraception which had forced women in the Soviet era to resort to abortions for family planning. [6] Although figures for illegal activities are hard to come by, this has led to a profitable abortion underground for Polish doctors, [7] abortion tourism, infanticide and child abandonment. [8]

  The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that in the cases of four Polish women all were unlawfully denied even their limited right to abortion under the restrictive conditions imposed by Poland. [9] In 2007 the Court ruled against Poland, after a woman was refused an abortion even though her health was at risk. She is now blind. [10] A second case went against Poland in 2011 after a woman was denied genetic tests. She is now struggling to raise a severely handicapped child. [11] A third case is pending before the Court, concerning a pregnant woman who in 2004 was refused treatment that could cause a miscarriage, by doctor citing conscientious objection. The case is being brought by her mother, as the woman herself died of septic shock. [12] 

And a fourth case, which prompted the European Court of Human Rightsto levy a fine on Poland borders on the unbelievable. [13] A 14-year-old who was raped faced criminal proceedings for having sexual intercourse as a minor. When she tried to get an abortion she was turned away by two hospitals. One of these made her life still worse by issuing a press release that made her the target of anti-choice activists and even gave her details to a Catholic priest who sent her unwanted text messages. Finally, in an attempt to break her resolve, a court removed the child from the care of her mother and sent her to a juvenile shelter!

  In 2011 a total ban on abortion was only narrowly defeated. [14] Yet there is now a de facto ban, as many doctors refuse to perform them on grounds of conscience. Official statistics from 2015 show only 1,040 legal abortions in Poland, although many more are known to take place, with women traveling to neighboring countries for the procedure or ordering abortion-inducing pills online. [15] The ban has also corrupted many Polish doctors who wish to keep on performing highly profitable, untaxed illegal abortions and do not want to perform abortions in public hospitals. [16]

♦  After the rightwing Law and Justice Party, which works closely with the Catholic Church, was returned to power, it introduced in 2016 a bill to further tighten up the restrictive abortion law. The only exception to a total ban would now have been a threat to the life of the mother (but not, of course, to her health). However, an embarassing debate about the bill in the European Parliament and countrywide protests by thousands of Polish women dressed in black convinced the Catholic Church that the measure was not strategic at this time. The bishops therefore posted a statement on their website saying that the Church didn't support a bill that would punish women for having an abortion. Krystyna Pawlowicz, a leading member the governing party said that the Episcopate’s new position had effectively “authorized” the vote against the bill, and accordingly, it was defeated — for now. [17]

This has left the country with a ban on abortions, with exceptions only made in cases of rape, if the mother's life or health is at risk, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the ruling Law and Justice party, said in 2016 he wants an even more restrictive law that would force women to carry their fetuses to term even in cases of Down syndrome or when there is no chance of survival. That would allow for baptisms and burials, Kaczynski said. [18]

♦  The next year the government banned the sale of the morning-after pill for emergency contraception, which had been available over the counter to any woman over the age of 15. A statement by Amnesty International noted that “Restricting access to the ‘morning-after pill’ will have devastating consequences for women and girls living in a country which already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.” [19]

Thus since the fall of communism women have found that a democratically elected government gives them the right to vote in fair elections but has taken away the right to decide about their own bodies. Only through vigorous protests, and with the help of the European Union, were they able to prevent the Church from further tightening its control over them. However, with "Western European" increasingly meaning "decadent" and the Law and Order Party intent on wresting as much control as possible from Brussels, the European Union's ability to protect Polish women is being undermined. [20] As a New York Times editorial noted, for Kaczynski, who hates Communism, "the opposite of authoritarian Communist rule is authoritarian right-wing rule, not democracy." [21]

For the bishops, family violence is part of the “natural order”

In 2012 the Polish bishops blasted the Government for signing a European convention committing it to fight violence against women. This obliges signatory countries to provide an around-the-clock hotline for victims of violence, a website with information about where women can find help, and to set up shelters and support centres. They are also required to conduct special courses for boys and men as well as a public information campaign to counter violence against women. [22]

Article 12 commits states to help eradicate “prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men,” and to ensure “culture, custom, religion, tradition or so-called ‘honour’ shall not be considered as justification for any acts of violence.” [23]

However, the bishops were having none of it. They said this “obligates signatories to fight against the achievements of civilization.” [24]

What the bishops really meant came out two years previously when in June 2010, Polish members of parliament approved a national law against violence in families, which tightened rules against corporal punishment. The president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Jozef Michalik, warned that the measure would undermine parental control “and disturb the natural order.” [25]

His Eminence is right that throughout human history family violence against women and children has indeed been considered part of the “natural order”  — but that is hardly reason to continue it. 

Keeping the lid on the clerical abuse scandal

Polish society is to be brought into conformity with Church teachings at every level: family, parish, diocese and the nation. In 1999 the Polish Bishops outlined in a series of 14 documents their plan to “begin the work of the new evangelisation”. [26] Polish emigrants abroad are also included in the evangelisation plan, potentially over several generations. With parishes in Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, this Polish Chaplaincy in Exile has been administered from the Vatican since Communist days. [27]

The increased pressure on women to conform to Church doctrine led in March 2012 to street protests by about 3000 feminists in several Polish cities. They argued that the global financial crisis provided a further reason to stop state funding for the Church and to spend the money instead on social issues such as health, education and violence prevention. They urged the cutting of the “umbilical cord” between church and state and said “We want health, not Hail Marys.” [28]

One indication of the continuing power of the Catholic Church in Poland is its ability to keep the lid on the clerical abuse scandal that has rocked the more transparent countries of Western Europe. Police and civic officials hesitate to challenge priests suspected of abuse in small towns and villages, where they were “often the most powerful people.” [29] In Poland victims can still face “hostility and disbelief” when they try to tell their stories. [30]

Another sign of the Church support for the ruling Law and Order Psrty was its refusal to condemn government moves to destroy the independence of the judiciary.

Silence is paying off for Poland's Catholic Church. The PiS government has increased state subsidies for the church. It has placed greater emphasis on voluntary religious education in schools, and has issued a parliamentary decision blocking access to "morning-after pill" emergency contraception. It is also tireless in its efforts to tighten the country's already restrictive laws on abortion. [31]

I.  “Trained to censor ourselves” (1994)

Excerpt from Anna Kanik [32]

Catholicism […] is less of a thought out system of beliefs and more of a tradition, a habit of mind. […] The Catholic Church has shown great political skill. Some MPs have been intimidated by priests and bishops. The Church pays little tax and thus has the wealth to publish books on science and ethics from a Catholic point of view. During Sunday services the clergy read out a letter from the Archbishop, which has a political and social agenda.

Because of the prohibition on most abortion, women travel to Russia (where conditions can be poor) and the Czech Republic for a termination. Clergy describe abortion as murder in the churches. In schools religious education lessons have included lurid details of abortion so frightening that girls have fainted.

In 1991, a law enforcing religious education was slipped into parliament rapidly before there was time to mount opposition. It often consists of a twice weekly catechism. There is the possibility to opt out and take part in ethical education, but young people worry that this will not give them the full certification they need for further education. [...]

A large part of the population is not religious. [...However] the population has been trained to censor itself for over fifty years, and the habit remains [...].

 II.  Public life: “A world without women” (2004)

Excerpt from Katarzyna Szumlewicz [33]

“Although Poland has one of the highest proportions of educated women in the world,
it is far behind other countries in terms of gender equality in the workplace.” [34]

In 1989, after the breakdown of socialism in Poland, […] instead of being granted more rights by the democratic state, women were soon deprived of those rights and liberties they had enjoyed so far. First, abortion was suppressed. But that was not all. Despite the promotion of full families with many children, many nurseries were closed down and the remaining few introduced high fees. As a result, women with large families had to leave their jobs and take care of their numerous offspring at home. It is not surprising that despite the ban on abortion, expensive contraceptives, and high availability of Viagra, the [birth] rate has collapsed.

As the ultimate illustration of women’s position, the Polish parliament did not even accept the motion to vote on a law granting equal status to men and women. The arguments used by right-wing politicians invoked ‘natural differences in the vocation of men and women’. Conservative MPs ridiculed the proposal to avoid gender stereotypes in school textbooks. They argued that such efforts might result in boys experiencing a sexual identity crisis. […]  Polish democracy is a world without women.

The Church, powerful already in the socialist period, has grown to enormous proportions since 1989. Today, virtually no important government decision is taken without its consent. At the church's demand, religious instruction was introduced into school curricula and it soon became compulsory. Officially, students of other faiths or non-believers may attend ethics classes, but lack of funding prevents most schools from employing teachers of ethics. The syllabi of other subjects, including history and biology, have also been prepared in consultation with bishops. Sex education was replaced in school curricula by unambiguously Catholic ‘education for family life’. Dangerous misinformation is rife, such as the idea that condoms let through the HIV virus.

III. Large families “for the glory of God and Poland” (1995)

Excerpt from Dr. Kaz Dziamka [35]

In the Polish village, the Catholic priest — unchallenged any longer by the communist apparatchik — has a complete control over the souls of his flock. […]

The decisions of the new “democratic” Polish government have been predictably pro-Catholic. One of them is to allow a Catholic priest to become a permanent member of every Polish public school. Another one is to institute “voluntary” Catholic prayers in public schools. [...]

Catholic instruction has been introduced in all public schools. (If the concordat is ratified, Catholic indoctrination would be extended to nurseries and colleges.) The first class every day opens with a prayer, the last class is followed by a prayer. It is the teacher's duty to attend church with students if there is a church holiday during the week. Catholic priests have now become permanent members of school boards.

Catholic priests and politicians have succeeded in banning abortion and stigmatizing contraception. Some priests, for instance, refuse absolution unless the “penitent” woman removes or abandons a contraceptive device. Catholic officials encourage — demand — large families “for the glory of God and Poland”, even though Poland has now become one of the most overpopulated and polluted countries in Europe. If the concordat is ratified, all weddings — church and civil — will be registered, making it easier for the Church to make a divorce illegal.


* Antoni SzymaÅ„ski, “Rozwody - smutny rekord”, Niedziela Tygodnik Katolickiegi, 6/2007.
Joanna Podgórska, “Rozerwalni”, Polityka, nr 25 (2609), 23 June 2007.,360526.html

1. SÅ‚awomir Sierakowski, !I was 10 when communism fell in Poland. My world became colourful – but unstable", Guardian, 4 June 2019.

2. Krystyna Daniel, “The Church-State Situation in Poland after the Collapse of Communism”, Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 1995 (2, 1995), p. 13. 

3. “Creeping evangelisation in state schools”, Concordat Watch. 

4. Terry Robertson, “Poland: Press, Media, TV, Radio, Newspapers”, [no date]. 

5. Singh S et al., Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Process, Guttmacher Institute, 2009, p. 12 

6. Wanda Nowicka, “Two steps back: Poland's new abortion law”, Planned Parenthood in Europe, 22 June 1993. 

7. Reproductive Health Matters, “Clandestine abortions generate up to $95 million a year for Polish doctors as women use illegal private sector”, 16 May 2011. 

8. Agata Ignaciuk, Abortion debate in Poland and its representation in press, University of Łódź, 2007, pp. 54-59. [master's thesis] 

9. European Court of Human Rights, “Reproductive Rights Factsheet”, May 2011. See: TysiÄ…c v. Poland (no. 5410/03) 20 March 2007; R.R. v. Poland (no. 27617/04) 26 May 2011 and Z. v. Poland (no. 46132/08) pending case. 

10. “ECHR affirms rejection of Poland abortion laws”, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 01 October 2007. 
“Landmark Abortion Decision By European Court Of Human Rights”, IPPF press release, 21 March 2007. 

11. “Europe rights court rules against Poland in abortion case”, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 27 May 2011. 
Alexandra Timmer, “R.R. v. Poland: of reproductive health, abortion and degrading treatment”, Strasbourg Observer, 31 May 2011. 

12. Anna Wilkowska-Landowska, “Poland: When ‘Conscience Clauses’ Mean Women Die”, Reproductive Health Reality Check, 3 May 2010.
[full article] 

13. "Teenage girl who was raped should have been given unhindered access to abortion", ECHR 398, 30 October 2012.

14. “Poland: Parliament Rejects Move To Ban Abortion”, New York Times, 14 April 2007. 

15. “Poles stage new protests over proposed abortion restrictions”, Associated Press, 23 October 2016.

See also: Maria Pawlowska, “The Price of Democracy in Illegal Abortions”, European Pro-Choice Network, 12 August 2011. 

Officially there were only 583 abortions in Poland in 2010. Just to put this figure in context: Poland has 36 million citizens. Out of those over 11 million are women between the ages of 18 and 59. If these statistics were true, Poland would be an international phenomenon: the number of abortions officially conducted in Poland annually is less than a seventh of the number of abortions conducted in America daily! However, what the number really means is that there is a huge abortion underground. At a recent conference held in the Polish parliament, the number of illegal abortions conducted in Poland annually was judged to be at least 200, 000 (and that’s after the exclusion of “abortion tourists” who are well-off enough to leave the country and have a safe, humane abortion in Germany or the UK)

16. “Abortions generate $95 million a year for Polish doctors as women use illegal private sector”, Health, 17 May 2011. 

17. "Poland Steps Back From Stricter Anti-Abortion Law", New York Times, 7 October 2016. Steps Back From Stricter Anti-Abortion Law

Krystyna Kacpura and Anka Grzywacz, “Poles Refuse to Put a Good Face on a Bad Game”, Conscience Magazine, 2016 Issue 3.

18.  “Poles stage new protests over proposed abortion restrictions”, Associated Press, 23 October 2016.

19. “Trump Hails Poland as a Beacon of Freedom. Rights Groups Beg to Differ.” New York Times, 6 July 2016.

20. Tim Hume, “Poland's populist government let far-right extremism explode into the mainstream”, Vice News, 9 May 2017.

21. "Poland Pulls Back From the Brink, for Now", New York Times, 25 July 2017.

22. “Church angry as Poland signs convention against violence”, Warsaw Voice, 19 December 2012. 

23. Jonathan Luxmoore, “Bishops blast Poland for signing pact to fight violence against women”, Catholic News Service, 10 December 2012. 

24. Ibid. 

25. Ibid.

26. II Polski Synod Plenarny (1991-1999): Dokumenty.

27. “Pastorisation and Evangelisation Plan of the Catholic Church in Slovakia for 2001-2006”, Concordat Watch 

28. “Protesters demand cut in 'Church and State umbilical cord'”, Polskie Radio, 12 March 2012.,Protesters-demand-cut-in-Church-and-State-umbilical-cord

29. “Child protection agency urges Polish church to confront clerical abuse claims”, ENI News, 9 December 2011. 

30. “A dark side of the Catholic Church”, Economist, 24 May 2013. 

31. "How the Catholic Church ties in to Poland's judicial reform", Deutsche Welle, 24 July 2017.

32. Anna Kanik, “Humanism in Poland”, 1 June 1994. 

33. Katarzyna Szumlewicz, “Poland: Transformation into a patriarchal state”, 1 Feb 2004. 

34. “Press Review”, Polskie Radio,16 June 2008. [The quote continues:] “Poland Monthly quotes a recent report which shows that women with comparable working conditions and responsibilities earn about 20 percent less than men, with the biggest inequality registered in managerial positions. It is only 30 percent of such positions, incidentally, that are occupied by women.”

35. Dr. Kaz Dziamka, “Castles in the air”, Freethought Today, August 1995. 


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