Social Disobedience As a Weapon Against Politicisation of Women’s Rights
by Alex Krawiec, November 2020
“Society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas”, Frederich Hayek
Human sexuality plays an important role in our everyday lives therefore it has often been politicised, exploited by politicians and religious leaders, and used to generate economic gains. Without doubt, women have suffered most from those who abuse power. But this needs to change. In the globalised world long-term socio-economic development will be a tough challenge if women are ignored and denied their reproductive rights.
Despite the urgency of problems related to the raging coronavirus pandemic, in October 2020 Polish government appointed by the ruling party — “Law and Justice” (PiS) — decided to re-examine the country’s abortion laws. As a result, the already restrictive act was replaced with new legislation which now almost entirely outlaws abortion. Despite the fact that in the 2019 election, the majority of Poles voted for the far right party (PiS) known for its radical views and strong ties with the Catholic Church, some of the pro-PiS voters are currently among the antigovernment and pro-choice protesters. During its term in office, PiS became infamous for various controversial reforms, including those condemned by the European Commission and described as “continuous backsliding on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights’’. In October 2020, a conflict over abortion divided Poland for a second time in the last four years. Despite all public objections in January 2021 Polish government ratified the law introducing nearly total ban on abortion.
The wave of the 2020 protests against the tightening of the already strict abortion law mobilised women across Poland and beyond its boarders. Similar protests, known as Black Marches (aka: Black Protests), took place in 2016, and were also a form of a backlash against PiS’ attempts to radicalise the already stringent, abortion laws.
The original legislation regulating abortion was introduced in 1993, and allowed for the termination of pregnancy in the case of a severely deformed fetus, rape, incest, and if mother’s life was endangered. Surveys show that a significant number of Poles supported such a solution, however the Law and Justice party insisted on tightening these regulations. In 2016 Black Protests broke out, and for that reason the reform did not come to fruition. However, rather interestingly, the topic re-emerged during the pandemic, when Law and Justice declared the incumbent law as unconstitutional and eugenistic. Such framing of this problem met with an outrage from the pro-choice supporters.The current amendment forces women to carry on with a pregnancy even when the fetus is seriously deformed, unless the mother’s life in endangered, and even against her will. For clarity, the old legislation did not encourage abortion, but gave women a choice which now has been taken away from them.
Abortion has long been one of those topics which can be considered a bone of contention between conservatives and those more liberally-minded. Currently, for historic reasons, Poland is among the strongest bastions of the Catholic Church in the world. Religion, and religious indoctrination still practiced in Polish schools, play a very important role in the way some people interpret the world; what they see as morally right or wrong, good or evil. The Church’s powerful position and its strongly patriarchal hierarchy have many consequences which include: promotion of male supremacy, limited access to science-based sex education, contraception, and now to abortion. Pro-life campaigners tend to accuse the pro-choice movement of encouraging promiscuity and disregard for human life when at the same time this very group was putting a blind eye on sexual misconducts and other forms of abuse from the clergy. Needless to say that the top hierarchies of Polish ruling party and its strongest ally — the Catholic church — are male-dominated, and patronising towards women, entitled to make decisions on women’s behalf.
Motherhood is biologically costly, and not all pregnancies are welcomed. It is also a serious enterprise which takes about nine months and requires, at the very least an extra few months to take care of the newborn. Parenthood, motherhood in particular, is a life-altering event with socio-economic implications. No wonder women demand the right to decide whether, or when, they want to become mothers, and whether they want to carry on with a pregnancy when a fetus is malformed.
Under the right conditions, pregnancy and motherhood are to most women the most anticipated event in their life. But when talking about pro-choice laws, we are not focusing on welcomed pregnancies, but on a broad spectrum of circumstances, especially those difficult ones which require support. Personal decisions regarding one’s body should be treated as human right integral to democracy.
Every year, women lose their lives as a result of botched abortion procedures. According to studies conducted by the Guttmacher Instituete, beteween 2015 and 2019, women reported 121 million unintended pregnancies and 61% of them ended in abortion. This translates to 73 million abortions per year.
Studies quoted by the WHO, point out that each year up to 13.2% of maternal deaths globally are the result of mishandled abortions. In countries with strict abortion laws like El Salvador, even a natural miscarriage can be taken for an abortion, an act still punishable by law in a group of countries in which we can now include Poland. There are well documented cases of women sentenced to up to 40 years of imprisonment for having an abortion, or alleged abortion. In 2012 in the Catholic Ireland, the case of Savita Halappanavar, who despite partial miscarriage was denied abortion and died as a result, stirred up the public and gave ground for the 2018 relaxation of the stringent anti-abortion laws. Regardless of all social progress that has been made, the conservative, pro-Catholic, right-wing Polish government stands strong, proud to be the last bastion of old traditions in Europe. Unshaken by the mass protests PiS representatives, like classic authoritarians, want to take decisions for you, and make you believe that they know best what is right for everyone.
Interestingly, despite widespread access to information, beliefs not facts are still influencing decision makers. Our shaped by culture and old traditions perception of the world is still reflected in the way we organise our institutions and practice democracy. Documents like the American Convention on Human Rights, is an example of tradition-based approach to lawmaking. It introduced a near-total ban on abortion in most Latin American countries. Consequently, even the ‘morning after’ pill can be considered as a punishable by law felony. The criminalisation of abortion in some Latin American countries has led to appalling cases of prosecution. Because of the strict anti-abortion law, women have been forced to complete their unwanted pregnancies, and some were falsely accused of abortion when in fact they naturally miscarried.
When we listen to what the pro-choice campaigners in Poland have to say, it seem clear that many, if not most, do not take abortion lightly. It needs to be strongly highlighted that every abortion is an act of emergency, an invasive and sometimes risky intervention into a woman’s body. It can be accompanied by difficult or traumatic events. What the anti-abortion legislators seem to be blind to, is the fact that abortion is often a woman’s last resort, and therefore allowing women to make their own decisions does not translate to encouraging abortions, but simply gives women the right to make her own choice.
Some of the anti-democratic tendencies observed around the world are certainly unsettling, and it is not uncommon that calculated political manipulation, or bigotry prevent societies from making progress and from creating socially responsible states. We may speculate how long will the old rigid social structures survive and hope that they will soon pass, become obsolete like malfunctioning old typewriters superseded by smartphones and computers. The fact that in the last decade, support for gender equality, in the EU and other places in the world, has been particularly strong brings hope.
As Hayek said, “society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas”. This seems to be already happening, faster now in the digital age than ever. Bad ideas, even when they manage to last for a while, sooner or later will be eliminated by the law of evolutionary fitness. What lasts, are our timeless needs like those described by Maslow’s hierarchy. We all strive for them during our lives and that is why they must be respected. We all want personal freedom, the right to make decisions especially those regarding our bodies, and to be treated with dignity. That is why any law or a government that abuses its power in order to suppress democracy, should not be obeyed. When women’s rights are politicised social disobedience becomes our most powerful weapon.