Nationalising women’s bodies (2)

The role of language in the abortion debate

By Joanna Chojnicka

In critical approaches to social sciences it is common ground that language plays a vital role in sustaining and reproducing the social status quo, including societal power relations. Critical theory also emphasizes that the goal of social studies should be to facilitate social change, to make social life more equal, just and fair, instead of merely “objectively” describing social reality. Still, as a researcher and an activist I am afraid that the connection between theory and practice – or academia and “real life” – remains weak. Academics tend to produce complex theories that are too abstract to be applied to concrete real-life situations. These theories are circulated within the academia, which means in isolation from where they are actually needed. And when they do find their way out into the “real world”, they are often perceived as too difficult to understand or impossible to relate personal experiences to (10).
I would like to work for bringing academia and “real life” closer together – it is one of the goals of this blog as well. I will try to post more ideas for, and examples of, a more socially engaged academic practice in the future. In the meantime, I would like to show how the current abortion debate in Poland illustrates in a very practical, pragmatic, down-to-earth way the significance of language use in social life. In this context, it really ceases to be a purely theoretical idea.

That language use plays an important role in the abortion debate is not a new idea. Already 12 years ago a study was published that analysed the language in which the Polish Constitutional Court expressed its stance on the abortion law (11). The study shows that the Court defined a foetus as a citizen that has specific rights. Abortion due to social reasons (e.g. poverty) is unacceptable here because it conflicts with the rights of a foetus.
Another example is speaking about ‘unborn children’ in terms of a ‘minority’ whose human rights are threatened (1). Note that the term ‘human rights’ belongs to a liberal discourse that often recognizes a woman’s right to an abortion. But here, it is re-interpreted by a conservative discourse as an argument against this right. Still, its use may encourage support, as we know that we are expected to support “human rights” while we rarely ask what exactly the speaker who uses this term has in mind.
Some right-wing media refer to abortion as ‘genocide’ (ludobójstwo) or ‘Holocaust’, usurping for their own ends historical terms usually causing discomfort and shame.

Another strategy is to refer to the ‘foetus’ as a ‘baby’, and to ‘pregnant women’ as ‘mothers’ from the onset of the pregnancy (12). The general atmosphere of romanticising and idealising motherhood, and of silencing any experiences that come short of ecstasy and euphoria at having a baby, renders it difficult to make an unbiased, rational decision concerning abortion, even in the case of a health risk or foetus malformation. Also, we rarely talk about the influence this atmosphere has on women who aborted for health reasons, miscarried, gave birth to a dead baby, or who find it difficult to love their baby.
The very ‘pro-life’ label is manipulative: people who fight for a total ban on abortion under this banner are effectively fighting for a law that would allow women to die from pregnancy complications – women who, when allowed an abortion, would survive and could give birth in the future. The movement usually referred to as ‘pro-choice’ is also ‘pro-life’ as it is fighting for the right of the woman to survive (=live) herself, and for her right to be able to conceive and give birth to healthy (=live) babies in the future.

Another example of the “war on language” won by the right-wing side of the debate in Poland is the dominant understanding of the word ‘compromise’ established with regard to abortion. The current abortion law, which came into force in 1993 after 40 years of legal abortion on demand, has been presented to women as a compromise between fully available abortion and its unconditional ban. Polish feminists now claim that the abortion law was indeed a compromise – but one between the Polish state and the Catholic Church, whereby the Church promised to support the government’s efforts to join the European Union in exchange for making abortion less accessible (1). The reproductive rights in Poland were caught in the cross-fire of the process of constructing, configuring and negotiating power relations in post-socialist transition.

For a bit more advanced illustration of the power of language in sustaining social relations, I offer a detailed analysis of two fragments of party programs referring to abortion here. But even with the examples mentioned above, this power aspect of language is clear.

The anti-abortion discourse (or any discourse) works through fragmented, contextualized, isolated statements and utterances. In such isolation, these statements do not appear dangerous, fantastic or fanatic, which is exactly where the potential and power of discourse lie. Separate statements seem innocent enough; but they do reproduce and reinforce an ideology that inspires them. This apparent “innocence” of isolated utterances also makes it difficult to expose and speak out against them. Those who do so are not taken seriously – they “overreact”. This is the main charge against Polish feminists: they see patriarchy and exploitation where real patriots merely cultivate and protect beautiful traditions.

Polarization of the public debate

There is one more aspect of the power of language in social life that the abortion debate illustrates very well. In my opinion, our public discourse is currently becoming more and more polarized. The division, on whatever basis, of society into us and them – two social groups that exclude each other – is gaining prominence. This often means that two apparently different options are presented as the only possible choices (a binary system), while other alternatives may exist (a continuum of choices where the differences are gradual rather than absolute). It makes whatever exists in-between the two ends of the system invisible, or “swallowed”, incorporated by one of them that seems closer, more similar.

Polarization also means that the two ends of the binary system appear more extreme, more radical than they actually are. In the case of the abortion debate, this hurts especially the “pro-choice” end. As it is supposed to be the absolute contradiction of not allowing abortions under any circumstances, pro-choice discourse appears to be promoting carrying out abortions in all situations. The problem is that the absolute opposite of a prohibition is an obligation, not a choice. But the fact is that women who are pro-choice do have babies, even from high-risk pregnancies (13). They fight for a free right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, not for an obligation to have an abortion.

In-between women who would never consider an abortion even if they could die without it, and women who see abortion as a method of contraception, there is so much variety: women who wish to have children, but not necessarily from a rapist, who is often a relative, sometimes a very close one; women who would gladly have a baby in the future, not at present when they are barely able to feed themselves; women with planned, but extremely malformed pregnancies who wish to spare their babies unnecessary suffering, but face a discourse that interprets this wish as amoral, selfish, evil. All this variety disappears when the public debate focuses only on the two most extreme cases. Which is a paradox, because exactly this group of women need a free right to abortion the most. These are the women who would consider an abortion only due to some extremely painful and difficult conditions that their pregnancy finds them in. For them, it is the hardest decision of their life. Hard enough without the atmosphere of extreme condemnation that the heated debate intensifies.

Polarization not only erases the variety and diversity of human experiences, but also divides the society into two groups in a way that emphasizes (and amplifies!) differences between them. The two groups come to see each other as enemies, their differences irreconcilable. The society usually divides on very difficult, controversial, moral topics, which creates the illusion that a coexistence of people with different views on basic values is impossible. This weakens the society in the face of problems that affect all of us, and makes it vulnerable to political manipulation. Not to mention the trauma of erasure experienced by those who find themselves in-between the two camps.

In the case of the current abortion debate in Poland, the total ban proposal may be a strategic move by the political elites to keep the society busy and divided while the politicians work on other, less spectacular projects that may be even more detrimental to democracy. It is genius, in a way. Because we cannot ignore it; both pro-life and pro-choice citizens feel forced to take to the streets. The problem is that by doing so, they are reacting exactly the way some politicians expect them to. How much energy are they wasting this way? How many people will just give in, decide to stop being involved in politics and activism, become indifferent? How many friends who have different views will stop talking to each other? This is exactly the expected outcome: the feelings of tiredness, powerlessness, impotence, indifference. A divided and impotent society will find it easier to accept even more infringements on its freedom in the future.

This move is also genius because the pro-choice movements in Poland who were talking about liberalizing the abortion law just a year ago now find themselves forced to defend the current law, which is just bad, as I wrote above.
I truly believe that the situation will not improve if we do not de-polarize public discourse. I find polarization one of the most pressing problems in the field of language and society, and I will be returning to it in my future work.

We need to remember that what we consider “basic values” and “moral topics” depends on our culture, changes over time, and is constructed by the public discourse that usually serves particular interests (it is never neutral!). Binary thinking – and its extreme variant of polarization – facilitates the division of society, but why can’t we promote a discourse of unity and diversity which emphasizes that we are all different – but also all human?



(1) Chełstowska, A. 2009. “Krótka historia aborcji”. In A. Czerwińska & J. Piotrowska (eds.) 20 lat zmian. Raport. Warszawa: Fundacja Feminoteka, pp. 11-30.

(10) For example,

(11) Holc, J.P. 2004. “The Purest Democrat. Fetal Citizenship and Subjectivity in the Construction of Democracy in Poland”. Journal of Women in the Culture and Society 29 (3), pp. 755-780.

(12) Graff, A. 2001. Świat bez kobiet. Płeć w polskim życiu politycznym. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.

(13) Read the comments at


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