Publication Eastern Europe - Feminism You Will Never Walk Alone

The change of social and political attitudes towards abortion in Poland



June 2024

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Illustration: Natalia Przybysz

On 8 May 1989, Poland stood on the verge of its first semi-democratic election. This momentous occasion was marked by the inaugural publication of Gazeta Wyborcza (the Electoral Gazette), a publication emblematic of Poland’s pro-democratic evolution.

Zofia Rohozińska is a graduate student at the School of Social Science, University of Warsaw, writing a dissertation tentatively titled Socialist Realism 1951–2021: The Genealogy of Remembering and Forgetting in the Polish Field of Art.

Małgorzata Tłomak studies sociology at the University of Warsaw and is a member of the Public Sociology Scientific Club.

Its maiden issue opened with a brief account of a pivotal meeting between Józef Glemp, the Primate of Poland (the highest-ranking bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland), and Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Solidarity movement, alongside other democratic opposition figures. The article, spanning four paragraphs, underscored the Primate’s emphasis on protecting the unborn, invoking the legacy of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, an icon of anti-communist opposition who regarded the issue with the utmost gravity.

The Church, the Primate stressed, vested particular interest in safeguarding the rights of the unborn, decrying any attempts to politicize or exploit the issue for electoral gain. The seeds of a new political era were sown in this charged political atmosphere. Even before the inaugural elections, the cost of the Catholic Church’s support for the democratic opposition became apparent: the existing abortion law, passed in 1956, had to be restricted.

The emergence of Poland’s new economic (capitalist) and political (democratic) system petrified the status of women’s reproductive rights for decades to come. The abortion debate, ongoing since the 1990s, reached a critical juncture in 2016 when the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) attempted to tighten the law, challenging the longstanding “compromise” of over 20 years. Subsequently, in recent years, we have witnessed heightened discourse from both sides and profound shifts regarding abortion.

Poland’s struggle over abortion aligns with global trends in regulatory interventions concerning women’s reproductive rights: on the one hand, liberalization (as seen in Cyprus and Ireland in 2018, Argentina in 2020, and the inclusion of abortion rights in the French Constitution in 2024), and on the other, tightening (such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court in 2022).

You Will Never Walk Alone: The Change of Social and Political Attitudes Toward Abortion in Poland, a new publication from Krytyka Polityczna and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Warsaw Office, examines Poland’s ongoing battle over abortion through three key dimensions: government policy, activism, and public opinion.

It begins with an overview of the post-1989 history of abortion in Poland, tracing the introduction of the so-called “compromise” in 1993, followed by the ongoing struggle for liberalization and alternative approaches to the legal constraints facing Polish women. The narrative then shifts to feminist resistance against right-wing attempts to restrict abortion rights in 2016, the successful tightening of abortion laws in 2020, and finally, the pivotal events of 2023, when women’s engagement contributed to the Law and Justice party’s defeat in the elections and subsequent loss of power.

The analysis reveals the interconnectedness of these three levels — policy, activism, and public opinion — and their role in driving political and discursive change.

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