Poland's Paradox: Loss of Sexual and Reproductive Rights in a Democratic Poland

By Grzywacz, Anka | Conscience, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Poland's Paradox: Loss of Sexual and Reproductive Rights in a Democratic Poland


Grzywacz, Anka, Conscience


The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland

Joanna Mishtal

(Ohio University Press, 2015, 2/2 pp)

9/8-0821421406, $28.95

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DISCUSS THE current state of women's human rights in Poland without examining the growing democratization of the country over the last century, which went hand in hand with a gradual loss of sexual and reproductive rights. The Politics of Morality. The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland examines the political and personal impacts of this decline in reproductive rights and health policies. Joanna Mishtal, a self-described "accidental refugee" from Poland, used her 14 years of research to analyze how the discourse around sexuality and morality was used by the Polish Catholic church and politicians. The window into women's experiences and coping strategies best shows what they lost during this period.

Mishtal leads us through these complex sociopolitical developments in the first two chapters. In 1944, Poland lost its sovereignty and became subordinate to the Soviet Union. It shared the fate of many other countries in the region, including Czechoslovakia and Romania. These "people's democracies" had, in fact, been authoritarian or totalitarian states, ruled by communist parties under Moscow's command but maintaining the illusion of parliamentarian democracy. There was no free market, no free speech and no freedom of travel, and democratic opposition was brutally silenced. Marxist ideology was taught in schools and at universities, but people felt it was forced on them.

In the Polish People's Republic, which lasted from 1952 until 1989, women were encouraged to work, and the state offered myriad solutions to assist them in fulfilling their family obligations--for example, childcare was free and there were subsidized bars selling homestyle foods in every town. Abortion had also been legal and free since 1956. More than 100,000 women terminated their pregnancies each year. Many, if not most of them, were practicing Catholics who reconciled their personal decisions with their faith. The church was generally quiet about it.

This model of women's empowerment had one big flaw--it was state imposed. Feminism was also intertwined with the hated communist ideology. Posters of women operating tractors are still present in national memory as relics of Soviet-style equality. Since Polish society never really fought for these rights, they were easy to take away. With the rise of the patriarchal Solidarity movement and St. John Paul II's papacy, the Roman Catholic church hierarchy gradually entered the path of radicalization and made a grab for political power. The first thing to go was women's rights, including abortion access.

Beginning as a symbol of freedom, the church quickly became a tool for repressing sexuality and a self-proclaimed moral authority. As Mishtal explains, Poland has never completely regained its sovereignty, since "the 'red' regime has been replaced by the 'black' one, referring to the priests' cassocks." The 1993 Concordat--a treaty between the Polish state, its episcopate and the Vatican--further expanded Roman Catholic church privileges and undermined Polish political independence.

Poland turned out to be, and still remains, one of the few countries in Europe where politicians regularly meet bishops for dinner to listen to their suggestions regarding new laws and amendments; where priests pay no taxes; where the church is granted new property for a nominal fee or none at all; and where artists can be put to jail for "offending someone's religious sentiments."

The author also explores the strategies of the women's movement and its reaction to quickly unfolding changes while communism faltered. Feminists operated in a very hostile climate in which they were branded as "relics" of communism and insulted publicly, even by top bishops, one of whom called them "concrete that even hydrochloric acid could not melt. …

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