Nationalising women’s bodies (3)

Analysis of party programs

By Joanna Chojnicka

There are some Polish parties that have the liberalization of the abortion law in their programs, including SLD (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, Democratic Left Alliance), SDPL (Socjaldemokracja Polska, Social Democracy of Poland), the Greens (Zieloni), Twój Ruch (Your Move) or the most recently established party Razem (Together). These parties had, respectively, 35, 0, 1, 11 and 0 representatives in the lower house of the Parliament (together 47 MPs; the lower house (Pol. Sejm) has in total 460 members) before last year’s election. Currently, they all have… 0 representatives.

Applying the discursive approach makes it possible to examine how the stance of these parties on abortion is expressed in their programs. There are two examples of such texts below:
– example 1 from the program of Razem (1),
– example 2 from the program of the Greens (2).

example 1 Jesteśmy przeciwnikami rozwiązywania problemu przerywania ciąży poprzez represje 
karne. Prawo, które obowiązuje w Polsce, nie działa – bez kłopotu omijają je kobiety zamożne, uderza natomiast w kobiety biedne, znajdujące się w ciężkiej sytuacji życiowej. Niezależnie od różnic, jakie dzielą nas w etycznej ocenie przerywania ciąży, jesteśmy przekonani, że rolą państwa nie jest stawanie w tej sprawie po stronie jednego światopoglądu. Decyzja o macierzyństwie powinna pozostawać w rękach kobiety.We are against solving the problem of interrupting pregnancy by penal repressions. The law that operates in Poland does not work – wealthy women avoid it without problems, while it affects poor women, in difficult life conditions. Independently from the differences that divide us on the ethical evaluation of interrupting pregnancy, we believe that the role of the state does not lie with siding with only one worldview. The decision concerning motherhood should lie in the hands of the woman.
example 2 Jesteśmy za poszanowaniem prawa kobiet do świadomego macierzyństwa, które oznacza decydowanie o tym czy, kiedy i ile mieć dzieci. Podkreślamy również wagę odpowiedzialnego ojcostwa. Uważamy, że aborcja nie może zastępować antykoncepcji. Jednakże jesteśmy za doprowadzeniem do stanu, w którym prawo nie reguluje kwestii aborcji, pozostawiając miejsce dla indywidualnego moralnego rozstrzygnięcia. Jesteśmy za powszechną i nowoczesną edukacją seksualną oraz za powszechną, finansowaną przez państwo dostępnością środków antykoncepcyjnych.

We stand for respecting the right of women to conscious motherhood, which means deciding whether, when and how many children to have. We also emphasize the importance of responsible fatherhood. We believe that abortion cannot replace contraception. We are, however, in favour of a situation where the law does not regulate the issue of abortion, leaving space for an individual moral choice. We are in favour of general and modern sexual education and general, state-funded availability of contraceptives.

Upon close reading it becomes visible that neither of these texts expresses an explicit stance in favour of liberalizing the Polish abortion law. The texts are actually rather ambiguous on this issue. They both emphasize that it is an ethical or moral matter, not a political matter. However, for abortion to become an ethical/moral decision, an individual decision taken by each woman, the state must be ideologically neutral. The Polish state is not ideologically neutral (in practice), which does make abortion a political matter.

The texts are also not free from evaluative implicatures which suggest a rather curious stance on abortion. In example 1, the current abortion law is deemed insufficient because it disadvantages poor women. Does it mean that if all women were rich enough to afford “underground” abortions, there would be no need to change the law? In example 2, it is suggested that the law should not regulate the issue of abortion – it should be an individual choice. But in order for women to be able to make this choice, abortion must be fully legal, which is a regulation by law. Otherwise the party may be suggesting that abortion should be a legal “grey zone”, lacking any reference in the legal system. How “well” this works may currently be observed in the case of the unregulated matter of gender recognition in Poland (in short, the current procedures of gender recognition are deemed not to be in line with international human rights standards (Śmiszek & Dynarski (eds.) 2014)).

Such ambiguous and careful formulation of parties’ stances on abortion seems to be a conscious strategy of minimizing the risk of antagonizing voters. Unfortunately, this strategy has serious consequences: first, it marginalizes the issue, makes it invisible in the public debate, sends the message that it is not something that Polish people care about; second, taking a decisive and explicit stance in favour of making abortion fully legal becomes almost exclusively a task for feminist activists and journalists, reinforcing their bad reputation and polarizing the field of activism (e.g., it has been suggested that the feminist “fixation” on abortion may antagonize lesbian activists, who do not find this matter important).

It may be mentioned here that abortion is not the only issue on which the political representatives that should reflect the variety of people’s opinions and worldviews are much more conservative than the average Polish voter. Kowalski emphasizes how the curious fact that both the government and the opposition in Poland consist practically only of conservatives has particular social consequences. The liberal worldview of a considerable part of the Polish society is not proportionately represented politically. This regards such matters as abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, civil unions and sexual rights and more generally – the role of religion in public life. All these matters are dismissed as “surrogate problems” (problemy zastępcze). The political sphere in Poland is much more univocal than the Polish public opinion (Kowalski 2009: 38).

This is not an exaggeration. When it comes to the current distribution of seats in the Sejm, out of 460 seats 389 belong to conservative MPs, 47 to the social-democratic/left MPs and 24 to neutral MPs (who are not members of any party). And the situation is even more dramatic due to the fact that the social-democratic parties in Poland are much more central-rightist than similar parties in Western Europe. Kowalski mentions an anonymous value survey filled out by members of the SLD party (which has 35 out of the 47 “leftist” seats in the Sejm) in 2008. According to the results of the survey, one third of the respondents believe that homosexuality is contrary to human nature and almost half is against legalization of same-sex marriage (with only 37% respondents in favour of marriage equality). 34% is against legalizing euthanasia, 15% – against abortion due to social reasons, and 45% – in favour of death penalties (Kowalski 2009: 38).

It must be concluded that the political structure in Poland does not represent the variety of beliefs and opinions of the Polish society. The ruling elites in Poland operationalize a conservative, national-religious discourse that ignores the positions of a vast diversity of social groups and thus contributes to the growing gap between Polish society and its political elites.

Due to a system which favours big and established parties, it is very difficult for young, enthusiastic politicians to reach the structures of power. The significance and influence of the Catholic Church cannot be overestimated: it is probably one of the reasons why even left parties are so careful in expressing their views. And the collective Polish identity – the discursive construction of “Polishness” – is dominated by the traditional, right-wing discourse (3). This discourse is analysed in the remaining part of the paper, arguing that it is the main obstacle to legal abortion and women’s rights in general in contemporary Poland.


(1), viewed June 4th 2015.

(2), viewed June 4th 2015.

(3) The construction of national identity dominated by traditional, conservative discourse, the role of religion and the specific system of party institutionalization are examined in more detail by O’Dwyer and Schwartz (2010) with regard to the situation of LGBT people in Poland and Latvia. The text illustrates how these three factors work together and reinforce each other in maintaining a high level of homophobia (which can be extended to support for patriarchy) in both countries.

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