Since 1993, Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe: abortion is only available in cases of grave fetal defect, rape/incest, or threat to the life of the mother, and only within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This law replaced communist-era laws that made abortion widely available for four decades, and was termed a “compromise” between the proponents of a total ban and those who wanted a public referendum on the matter.
But now a new bill, pushed by a pro-life foundation and the Ordo Iuris legal institute, would make abortion illegal in all circumstances. Doctors who performed an abortion could be punished with jail terms of up to five years. The only exception would be the “unintended” death of a fetus while saving a woman’s life.
The Roman Catholic Church in Poland (a country where more than 95 percent of poll respondents call themselves Catholic) publicly supports the initiative, and has repeatedly called for a total ban on abortion. The leaders of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has sole control of the government, Prime Minister Beata Szydło and party chair Jarosław Kaczyński, both spoke out in favor of the proposal.
However, this bill isn’t simply an expression of religious conservatism. It’s the result of partisan politics. And my research suggests that neither the Catholic Church nor the governing party are likely to benefit.
Despite the longtime de facto ban on abortion in Poland, protests exploded
The restrictions on abortion are not new. Poland’s existing and highly restrictive law has been on the books for more than two decades, with the acquiescence (if not agreement) of the Church. Two doctors must approve the procedure, but many have been unwilling to do so. Since the law passed, the number of legal abortions performed annually fell from more than 100,000 to fewer than 1,000. The official abortion rate has plunged from 18 percent to .07 percent of all pregnancies – although there is a flourishing abortion underground, and abortion tourism to neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
In several notorious cases, doctors delayed approving abortions until the 12th week – effectively denying legal termination to a severely vision-impaired woman for whom pregnancy threatened blindness, and to a 14-year-old victim of rape. In both cases, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the government of Poland had no right to deny the abortion without an appeal, and imposed financial penalties on the government.
Nor is this the first attempt to ban abortion entirely in Poland. Parliament had debated — and rejected — the same abortion ban, put forth by the same pro-life foundation, on several separate previous occasions, most recently in 2015, 2013, and 2011.
Here’s what’s new: civil society’s unprecedented and immediate backlash. Within five days of the announcement, 85,000 people had signed up for the Facebook page of a protest group, Dziewuchy dziewuchom, which roughly translates as “Women for Women.” In an organized protest on April 4, hundreds of men and women walked out of Mass when priests read the Church’s official letter supporting an abortion ban. And just as women in Indiana have been protesting new abortion restrictions and invasive demands for information by forming “Periods for Pence” and notifying the governor of the status of their menstrual periods, women in Poland have overwhelmed the Polish prime minister’s Twitter and Facebook feeds with details of their “Difficult Period.” Public opinion overwhelmingly supports the 1993 compromise.
What’s behind the abortion ban – and the protests against it?
So why the new initiative to limit abortion, why the unprecedented protests, and what are the political implications?
The entire controversy is about partisan politics. The right-wing governing party, PiS, has been controversial – verging at times on authoritarian — since it took office with an absolute majority in October 2015. PiS has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal, which is very roughly equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, by packing it with its loyalists and imposing new constraints on the Tribunal’s authority. It moved to control public news media by firing public media officials and journalists and replacing them with party loyalists. The party has announced it would dismiss thousands of civil service servants, and hire only those loyal to the party. And it has appointed ministers in sensitive sectors (especially Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Defense) with extreme and divisive views.
However, now that PiS has the majority in parliament, the Church and pro-life organizations have forced its hand, publicly insisting that the ban be introduced and passed. PiS cannot hide behind either coalition politics or a claimed lack of votes: It is the only party in government and has a parliamentary majority. Having portrayed itself as a defender of religious values and the Church, PiS cannot ignore the initiative. It cannot simply reject the proposed bills, since it criticized previous governments for doing so. And because its other policies and actions have been so controversial, PiS needs the Church to ensure a loyal base of support.
The protests are against the church dictating to the state
Here’s what protesters are objecting to. The protests themselves are not against Catholic religious doctrine, which is widely understood, and has been both consistently and constantly articulated. Nor do they reflect a shift in public opinion, which has shifted against abortion and has consistently supported the 1993 compromise. Rather, the demonstrations, tweets, op-eds, and mobilization are a protest against open and direct church involvement in politics, and especially the perception that the Church is exploiting social tensions and political conflict to attain its goals.
My research indicates that such overt grabs for political influence often backfire on churches. That’s especially true for the very public way in which the Church is exploiting its alliance with PiS and conflict in Polish society over government policies. Even in very religious countries, public opinion shows large majorities opposed to religious influence on politics, votes, and governments. Poland is no exception.
Poland remains very Catholic, and the Church has considerable moral authority among many people not just as a religious force, but as a defender of the Polish nation and a representative of the common good. But it risks squandering its moral authority when acting in an explicitly, and publicly, partisan manner.
In fact, as I argue in a recent book, partisan coalitions cost churches moral authority and result in far fewer policy concessions from governments, precisely because religious groups no longer act as representatives of the common good — but as advocates of particular, political and partisan interests. Alliances with political parties may give churches a policy concession here and there — but in the long run, they undermine the churches’ reputation and support, because people oppose religious influence on politics. Ironically, they also make these religious groups less attractive coalition partners in the future.
Instead, churches gain the most durable and significant policy concessions when they work through covert channels. That’s what the Polish Catholic Church has done in the past, using a joint commission with the government, frequently getting involved in consultatory bodies, and negotiating in back rooms. That approach got results, including religious education in public schools; the 1993 abortion limits; favorable tax and financial status; and various regulatory exemptions.
If the Church wins a full ban on abortion in Poland, it may well be a Pyrrhic victory. The Church and its allies may gain a doctrinal goal. But it may weaken or eliminate the Church as a national moral authority in Poland.
Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Weiser Professor in the department of political science at the University of Michigan, and author of Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics.