Poland is beginning to look like an ideal European getaway for the Christian Right—and advocates for women's rights might want to pay attention to this recent addition to the European Union. Since assuming power in 2005, President Lech Kaczynski has raised the hackles of the European Parliament by enacting or endorsing social policies based on fundamentalist biblical principles, some of which violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
Post-communism, in the early 1980s, Poland tightened the reigns on many social policies. Today, it has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, sex education in public schools is almost non-existent, and 45% of Polish women use "natural family planning" as their principal method of contraception. Crucifixes can be found in the halls of most public institutions, including the Parliament, state offices and public schools.
No wonder then that the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international network of "pro-family" activists led by the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, will be hosting its fourth conference in Warsaw this week.
Organizing since 1995, the WCF is a coalition of right-wing, primarily Christian groups and individuals who gather every few years with the hope of restoring "the natural family as the fundamental social unit." This means they want individuals to replicate the ideal of the nuclear family: "a man and woman bound in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of the continuation of the human species." According to the WCF, the natural family is a conceptual framework that prohibits a whole range of social behaviors, including abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.
What makes the WCF of concern to the sexual and reproductive rights community, the gay community, and women in general, is that their conferences bring together some of the most influential leaders of the anti-abortion and anti-feminist movements in the United States and internationally. The gatherings are not merely opportunities for groups to pontificate on the decline of family values and morality—though plenty of shrill griping does take place—the real focus is on actually reversing existing progressive social policies not only at the national level, but also global agreements negotiated at the United Nations.
It's certainly no coincidence that the concept for a World Congress of Families first emerged on the heels of the United Nations 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, whose Programme of Action represented a radically ambitious blueprint for women's reproductive health and rights.
The first two WCF meetings, in Prague and Geneva during the late 1990s, combined a bizarre mix of aristocrats (Dom Duarte, the Duke of Braganza and titular King of Portugal among others), and rightwing extremists, including David Crane, signatory of the Defensive Action Declaration, which promised to take "all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force."
The third WCF meeting, in Mexico City, 2004, signaled a move to the next stage of organizing and advocacy. Then Mexican President Vicente Fox's wife Martha Sahagun de Fox gave the opening address to the conference. She was joined by Ellen Sauerbrey, then U.S. representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Sauerbrey read a letter from her boss, President George W. Bush, in which the U.S. administration explicitly endorsed the WCF for the first time.
The Mexico City WCF was a more serious affair, and the notable roster of who's who from the international right-wing signaled the growing ascendance of the "pro-family" movement, all of which brings us to Poland today.
Since joining the European Union in 2004, the Polish government has raised alarm bells by enacting or supporting discriminatory policies toward women and gays. In March, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Poland in the case of a woman who was denied an abortion and forced to continue a pregnancy that threatened her health. Anti-gay discrimination and violence has been spiking under President Kaczynski, who recently affirmed his support for a proposal by his Minister of Education to criminalize the "promotion of homosexuality in the schools."
In April, after investigating this proposal, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution condemning Poland for an "increase in intolerance caused by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia." This decision was not only rejected by President Kaczynski's identical twin brother, Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczynski, who declared that "It's not in the interest of any society to increase the number of homosexuals—that's obvious," but also by the WCF, which responded by accusing the EP of totalitarianism on par with that of the Nazis and communists.
Concerned that "Europe is almost lost…to a demographic winter and to the secularists," the WCF believes that "on family and population questions, Europe is the battleground in the early years of the 21st Century, and Poland is the pivot point. It makes abundant sense that The World Congress of Families IV meet among the brave people of Poland."
The line up at this year's WCF makes the Mexico meeting look positively provincial. Sauerbrey will participate again and presumably bring Bush's ringing endorsement. She will share the stage with Wade Horn, long considered the Bush Administration's point man on abstinence education and who recently resigned as Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at HHS; Tom Minnery, Senior Vice President of Focus on the Family, and Paige Patterson, the former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, among other defenders of the faith.
And leading the pack with the honorary opening address will be President Lech Kaczynski. As Poland lurches further to right and as Christian conservatives endeavor to "reclaim" Europe, it remains to been seen whether the WCF can help establish the first Christian right beachhead in Europe.