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The female body as a public good or: the battle for women’s rights in Poland

In Poland, women‘s organisation have – once more – called for a general strike. On Friday 23rd thousands are expected to take the streets in Warsaw to scream out their anger against the restriction of the abortion law and with it the restriction of women’s rights in Poland. The protest is labelled “czarny piątek”, Black Friday. Since 2016 women have been taking the streets to battle restrictions of the already insanely strict abortion laws in the country. The government, allied up with the catholic church in Poland, stands against a front of liberal organisations, initiatives, institutions and furious, powerful and united women. The opposition has decided to somehow disappear in the matter. „Woman already made the experience that they cannot count on the support of the parliamentary opposition to protect their rights and that only in the streets they can block the attack on their freedom.“ Says Krzysztof Pacewicz, journalist of the critical online magazine He warns PiS that they should better prepare for a black revolution.

But what is the fuzz about anyways?

Through all those years of feminism, emancipation and gender equality, women have barely even managed to gain the full right over their own bodies. Still often treated as birth machines who must provide new citizens to a country, they only have restricted say in the decision whether or not to carry a child once it is conceived.

In Europe, one of the most restrictive laws on abortion can be found in Poland. In 1993 the formerly rather liberal law on abortion had been altered towards a „compromise“. After the fall of communism and a strengthened position of the church in Poland, it was the catholic interest to promote a „pro-life“ legislation. That is to say, a „pro-foetus-life“-law, not a „pro-women‘s-life“-law. This compromise serves as legal basis until today.

According to the law, an abortion in the first trimester of a pregnancy can be allowed if the child was conceived as a result of rape or incest, if the mother‘s health or life is severely in danger or if the foetus has irreversible foetal damage which would lead to a stillbirth or the birth of a child which would barely be able to survive. Anybody who carries out an abortion against this law will be faced with deprivation of liberty up to 10 years. To give a comparing number, rapists will be charged with a prison sentence between 6 months to 8 years. Ending a life before it even began seems obviously far worse than ruining an existing life.

An emotional topic

Abortion is an emotional topic. The discussion circulates about life and death. For months, supporters of the pro-life movements in Poland have been standing around with their banners showing bloody fetuses which have been rescued out of their cruel mother‘s womb to grow into beautiful little girls. Other banners show Hitler next to blood-smeared fingers reading „Hitler brought abortion to Poland“ and „Abortion killed more Russians than Hitler – stop the genocide.“

In her book „How to be a woman“ Caitlin Moran takes a clear stand on abortion: „I cannot understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life. As a species we‘ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don‘t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain and life-long poverty shows us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we‘ve made on the most feeble of effort to really treat human life as sacred.“

But this aside – if you use Hitler and the Russians and blood in a political campaign in Poland (and anywhere else) it clearly shows that you are not interested in a rational discourse using well-founded arguments.

My body, my choice?

The issue here is not that a group of people has decided for themselves that they could never abort an unborn child.

The problem is that a woman‘s body is treated like a public good. Does anybody care about the woman? Catholics say yes – because only motherhood could give a woman real fulfilment. How does this sound in the 21st century?

The initiative „Ratujmy kobiety“ (we rescue women) has proposed a change to the abortion law – without success in the parliament. Instead, a further restriction will be voted on today. It aims at eradicating the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy if the foetus is severely malformed. This surely is a controversial topic. Are we moving towards the fabrification of the ideal child in an ever-more competitive world? But the debate in Poland leaves no room for such discussions. PiS politicians talk about „eugenic murder“, referring to the race theory of Nationalsocialists. The debate is too emotional, too manipulative and too exclusive to be done with rational arguments. Most of it is officially discussed in the absence of women. 

And even if the matter would be on the table as a moral debate, it still does not serve as an argument to restrict women in their decisions over their own bodies and their own futures. „Equality between the sexes will only exist if a man will give birth to a child“, said former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo last year. Great then, so we just jump back to the 19th century and transform women into the housekeeping, child-caring machines they used to be? Thank you, but no.

But where will the babies come from if women are free to choose?

The argument that all women would suddenly turn into murderers, getting rid of foetuses all the time, is simply stupid. Putting the murder-aspect away immediately, what does this assumption say about our society? Is it not a place where the majority of pregnancies would be happily received? As a young woman I cannot, but be slightly concerned about my future if I am trying to get kids and a career together. And that is me having a great man by my side. But our society continues to be not very mother and child friendly. And Poland surely makes no exception. 

So, instead of forcing women to carry children they don’t want and will potentially neglect, reject or hate what about building a society in which women enjoy having children? I know, crazy thought.

What about teaching men not to rape women, so that no women has to go to the horrific experience of an abortion (after she has succesfully proven that the child really was conceived during a violent act, because a legal fight surely is what a woman is longing for when being shattered on the ground already)? 

Whatabout giving men the absolute same right for parental leave as the mother? What about child care in all companies and daily life, allowing mothers to breastfeed away? What about stopping to stigmatise women who do not want to be 100% mothers? 

Whatabout providing substantive sexual education to children and teenagers, teaching men and women to equally care about contraception? And then providing information and free access to those women who, for whatever reason they decide, want to have an abortion.

I know, sometimes I have crazy ideas.

Because, fun fact, criminalizing abortion does not lead to more happy families. Firstly, most women would still seek abortion either abroad or by illegal practitioners in their country. This would be expensive, fraught and eventually more dangerous. If you have to travel to get your abortion, abortion becomes a luxury. How absurd does that sound?

Secondly, even if more rape victims, teenagers or women who just really do not want the child, still give birth to them, there just simply might be more rejected, neglected and unhappy children. And why in the world would you force a woman to carry a child which will be born dead or die within its first weeks or months of living? If a woman freely chooses to do so, to being able to bury her child, let her do it. If not – how dare anyone to allege that a woman just frivolously goes to get an abortion? How does anybody dare dictating her what to do with a part of her body?

The Polish government aims at reducing abortions. What about reducing violence against women first? But no, it is much more economic to reduce state funding for organization which actually work on that cause. And also, if you do not raise awareness about the problem of domestic or sexual violence you can naturally keep your violence statistics low. It is much better to keep saying that violence and aggression are naturally occurring family conflicts.

It does not matter at what side of the coin we are looking. Matter of fact is that – even in our overpopulated world – the life of an unborn child is still worth more than the right of free choice of a full-grown woman who – for reasons she must not explain anybody but herself – has no place in her life for a child.

In Poland, a country known for its weak civil society, women have been going out on the streets in hundreds and thousands for months now. They do not have support from anybody but themselves. The EU, neighbouring countries – they all have a lot to criticize about Poland, but women rights are barely ever mentioned. The supporting opposition in the government is vanishingly low. But the movement, the protest in the streets show that Polish women (and men) will not give up. It is tiring to stick to a battle if it is not fought with fair means, but the movement is strong. I am happy and proud to support it. 

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