The Power of Definitions
BLOG 19 Oct 2016
Adopting a definition of a human being that marks the moment of conception as the beginning of human life, and claims that this very early stage of life is sacred, could, misleadingly, put the anti-abortion laws in Poland in a humanitarian light. In particular, such a definition would allow for legal manipulation and violation of women’s rights. It would imply that no matter what circumstances accompanied the moment of conception, once conceived, a human life would be considered as “sacred”, or in other words — non abortable. By this definition, the new life would be protected by law from the first days after conception, and by law a mother would have no right to terminate her pregnancy. If introduced, this law would also radically limit prenatal medical interventions and tests. With the new legislation, all abortions would be illegal. Once a woman would get pregnant, the only right she would have would be to carry on with the pregnancy, even if she was still a child herself, or if the embryo was seriously malformed.
Since 2015, Poland has been ruled by the right wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which oddly combines a conservative Christian democracy approach to social issues with a rather nationalistic and populistic approach to economy. Democratically elected, Law and Justice holds the majority of seats in the Polish Parliament, and is led by an openly traditional and conservative Catholic, Jarosław Kaczynski. He is the brother of Lech Kaczynski — the former president of Poland, who died in the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia. The catastrophe is still looming over the public space in Poland and is the subject of multiple debates. It became a controversial issue which divided society into those who believe that the plane crash was a result of some arcane conspiracy (PiS), and those who give credence to reports claiming that Smolensk was a tragic accident. Among the most recent controversial steps taken by Law and Justice are a reform of the educational system, non-compliance with some of the EU regulations (conflict over the Constitutional Tribunal), disregarding the Venice Commission’s recommendations, and the very recent project concerning the anti-abortion law.
On 3rd October, at least 100,000 Poles in over a hundred cities, both in Poland and abroad, took to the streets demonstrating against the proposal of the new abortion law. In addition to these 100,000 protesting, a few million expressed their solidarity by wearing black clothing — hence the name of the protest — “Black Monday”. Many employers encouraged their employees to join in the protesters, and some institutions, among them some universities, cancelled activities on that day. The demonstrators were pointing to democratic rights and to their right for the freedom of choice when making decisions regarding one’s private life. The protesters appealed that without respecting women’s rights there is little chance for socio-political progress. The government’s immediate reaction to the protest only added fuel to the burning fire. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, commented on these events with ostentatiously condescending ‘advice’: “let them play”. Waszczykowski’s comments have raised eyebrows before, but this time it caused a flurry of indignant responses from women’s groups, and from the opposition.
Statistics show that strict regulations are not necessarily correlated with abortion rates. For example, in countries like Sweden, Russia and Austria, where abortion is available ‘on request’, the rates of abortions vary. In Russia and Sweden they are very high, while in Austria they are very low. The statistics imply that when it comes to making difficult decisions there are many factors at play, and prohibition can only lead to problem escalation such as illegal practices, or it can force pregnant women to go through abortion abroad.
Most of us understand that terminating a pregnancy is a serious, intimate and — in the majority of cases — a very difficult decision. But in certain situations it is the only choice a woman can make. Unfortunately, some power-thirsty politicians try to seize control even over citizen’s private choices. The Polish right-wing party decisions are often backed up by the Catholic establishment, including some of the pro-life movements. If the project for the new abortion law was introduced, women, regardless of circumstances, would be forced to have children against their will. Following this logic, some were asking why single men are not being legally bound to adopt orphans. To most of us, such a suggestion seem preposterous, which shows how biased we still are in our thinking about women rights. What seems ironic is the fact that the new abortion law project originated in ideologies and lobbying from the influential clergy, the majority of whom are single men, and none of whom have — at least officially — taken parental responsibilities. As one of the protesters said, if we allow the government to intervene in this particular way, it wouldn’t be surprising if they tried to go further, perhaps suggesting that women’s place, as tradition has it, should be at home.
Apart from the European Conservatists and Reformists fraction, the political majority within the European Parliament backed up the bottom-up initiative from Polish society. After “Black Monday’s” demonstrations, and the intervention of the European Parliament, Polish government succumbed to the protesters’ demands, and withdrew the anti-abortion law project. But it is already working on an alternative one, so the controversy may resurface in coming months.
Saying all this, I should add, that as much as I genuinely support the idea behind the protest, I do not agree with certain forms which such protests sometimes take, like public exposure in the European Parliament. I don’t think that women need to recourse to shock-evoking behaviour, which seems highly unnecessarily, inappropriate, and can act as a backlash to women’s dignity.
Democracy, as we hope, can be a powerful weapon against our own fallacies. It gives people the right to demand to be treated ‘fairly’. However, it is also the weapon which can render us helpless, like when we vote for the wrong governments. In my opinion, the US presidential candidate Donald Trump is another recent example of a failure of democracy. Some could argue that so is Brexit. As claimed by Parato and Mosca, democracy may be illusory, and in certain contexts it surely is. Closer to Poland, Adam Przeworski, another expert on democracy, points out that democracy needs the right environment in order to develop and flourish. It goes through stages, and it is not producing equilibrium of statutory equality. However, in the context of the anti-abortion battle in Poland, only through democracy women could — once again — fight and win their rights. Democracy may be far from a perfect political system, but it is the most effective one we have. In the majority of cases, the swarm intelligence of the democratic crowd has been beneficial for us, and societies became more humanitarian through its mechanism. In the “Black Monday” protests, democracy — a double-edge sward (PiS won through democratic election) — was still instrumental for proving the ruling powers wrong. Once again, solidarity acted on the Poles’ side, and hopefully it will further help us to build a more inclusive, equality-driven society.
Alexandra is the RSA Connector for Poland. Alexandra has worked as a documentary film maker, Philharmonic Hall Managing Director and US television station representative in Europe.