Poland tends to get associated with a number of different things depending on interests and geographical location. The French perceive us as skilled plumbers, the Japanese and music lovers think of Chopin, and Americans and food lovers associate Poland with superb sausages. However, if you’re interested in reproductive rights what comes to mind when Poland is mentioned is not classical music or good simple food, but an awfully restrictive anti-abortion legal framework and a strong political will to make things worse (I wrote more about the anti-abortion laws and their history here). Over the past 20 years the political allegiance of those in power didn’t seem to matter much, left or right—they were always mostly white males over 45 with no intention of getting into trouble with the Catholic Church by talking about reproductive health, or anything to do with sex for that matter, including sex education in schools or even contraception.
However, just last month a historical thing happened in Poland (a few actually). For the first time in recent history, we re-elected the same government. This was big news back in Poland. Many people, whatever their feelings towards the somewhat hilariously (in English) named Prime Minister Donald Tusk, were pleased with the thought that we are coming of age as a democracy. Others were excited that the far right, Eurosceptic, nationalist (and I could just keep the negative adjectives coming) Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the identical twin brother of the former president who died in a plane crash last year—did not win the elections. Some were also genuinely pleased that Tusk—a self-proclaimed, liberal conservative—stayed in power. But make no mistake, Tusk and his Civic Platform party are liberal when it comes to economy and deregulation and conservative when it’s about social issues. Although Mr. Tusk grandly declared that “he will not kneel in front of bishops” and that he “answers to the people and not the Catholic priests,” he has not in fact done anything which the bishops would have looked upon unkindly.
In his previous four years as head of the Polish government, Tusk has literally not done a single thing to improve the current, appallingly bad, reproductive health situation in the country. There is still no evidence-based sex education in the vast majority of schools; contraception (other than barrier methods) still has to be prescribed by a gynecologist and is still expensive and not refunded; abortion is legal but only if the pregnancy is the result of a crime or the health or life of the fetus or mother is endangered (and even then it is very difficult to obtain). Things don’t seem to be looking too good, do they? And there’s more—Elzbieta Radziszewska, the equality minister for the past four years, was openly anti-feminist and anti-gay. For example, she said on live television that she “will not take these arguments seriously because they are coming from a gay man.” (I should also note that the man in question was not publicly out at the time she made her outrageous statement.)
So in a country with no sex education, (practically) no abortion, and a homophobic equality minister, things couldn’t really get much worse (not within the legal framework of what the EU allows for, anyway). Therefore, it was with some hope that I looked forward to the current elections. However, a month down the line, my feelings are mixed to say the least. Let’s take a look at some of the good stuff first.
- Anna Grodzka—the first transsexual parliamentarian EVER ANYWHERE— got elected to the Polish parliament. What’s more, she got elected from Cracow—the capital of the conservative Polish south. Now, there’s a victory for tolerance and inclusion if I ever saw one.
- Wanda Nowicka—the head of the Polish Planned Parenthood International affiliate also got elected and became the deputy speaker of the Parliament.
- Robiert Biedron—an LBGTQ activist got elected as the first openly homosexual parliamentarian.
Oh, and the homophobic equality minister got sacked (only about three-and-a-half years too late).
It being Poland and the government being “liberal-conservative,” not all the news is this good, of course. The major negative jaw-dropper is the new Minster of Justice. When gossip first broke, on the eve of the official announcement, that Jaroslaw Gowin might get the Ministry of Justice, everyone thought it was a joke. I didn’t even bother reading about it because the idea seemed so ridiculous. And good for me, because I got an additional 12 hours free from worrying about the state of the Polish legal system and particularly the abortion laws.
The thing is, Jaroslaw Gowin as minister of justice is no less ridiculous, now that it’s true, than it was when we all thought it was just a bad joke. Gowin is a philosopher with no legal background whatsoever. Somewhat weirdly, the prime minister said that his lack of legal training or education is in fact an advantage, because he has no vested interests or dues to pay. That he may have absolutely no idea what he’s doing didn’t seem to occur to Tusk as a potential issue. All this may look like just another crazy “he’s my good buddy and I owe him a favor” ministerial nomination, if not for fact Gowin is also a Catholic fundamentalist and an affiliate of the notorious Opus Dei.
Gowin has a PhD in philosophy and his previous ventures into law-making could be seen as somewhat relevant to his education. He was appointed by the prime minister to write the bioethics (aka in-vitro) bill. Personally, Gowin believes in-vitro to be dehumanizing baby-killing (instead of a solution for infertility), but he was gracious enough to put his Catholic views aside when writing what may become the law of the land in a supposedly secular country. Well, he sort of tried to put his views aside (I think). He ended up drafting a bill, which if turned into law would allow only married couples to create no more than two embryos which could not later be destroyed (or used for scientific purposes). Also, no woman older than 40 would be allowed the treatment (even though women older than 40 are the primary audience for such treatment). Gowin confessed that if it were up to him, he would straight out put a moratorium on in-vitro procedures and have none of this godlessness happening in the country that spawned the previous Pope.
And, in case there was any doubt about his views on terminating pregnancies—according to the new Minister of Justice, abortion is bad and should be completely delegalized. However, Gowin said he won’t attempt that because it might turn out to be counterproductive and end up winning more support for the “leftist/liberal/communist” pro-choice agenda. The fact that if he de-legalized abortion in a sovereign state that declares the separation of state and church in the constitution he would be blatantly writing the law according to the wishes of another country’s leader (the Holy See) is not an issue for him.
Overall, the view for the next four years is a mix of the good and the scary. The ultra-Catholic minister of justice with no previous experience in serious law-making is definitely pretty depressing; but to lighten the mood Poland now has a deputy speaker of the parliament who is vocally pro-choice and got elected by talking about abortion and women’s rights. And the first openly homosexual member of parliament will also, whether the conservatives like it or not, lead to a “normalization” of the concept of same-sex public figures. Just recently, Julia Pitera, the prime minister’s anti-corruption expert, made a complete fool of herself on live television by saying that Biedron cannot use the term “below the belt” (as in, “this argument is below the belt”) because he’s gay and that makes it obscene. I kid you not, she actually said this on live television. The journalist interviewing her looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether she was crazy and hearing things or whether Pitera was crazy and actually did just say what she thought she said. Needless to say, the prime minister who tolerated his homophobic equality minister for the past four years did absolutely nothing about this. (On a side note, the prime minister himself has used the term “below the belt” numerous times but Pitera said that it is okay for her boss to say that, because he’s heterosexual.)
In his exposé the prime minister said it’s not the government’s role to bring about social revolutions—by which he most likely meant that there will be no civil partnerships for homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter), because yes, Poland is a country where letting two adults formally sanction their relationship amounts to a revolution if they happen to be of the same sex. We haven’t even gotten close to seriously considering the refunding of contraception or infertility treatment or to instituting evidence-based sex education in schools. I’d rather not think what the prime minister would say about teaching 15-year-olds about the importance of consent and STI and pregnancy prevention. He’d probably call that a total social meltdown.
So it seems we’re up for more of the same—the “abortion consensus” will remain the travesty that it is, and the conservatives will not allow for the refunding of contraception or proper sex education in schools. But the winds of change are blowing. Homophobia is no longer okay and getting elected by talking about abortion is obviously entirely doable. Polish people (at least some of them) feel the need to drop the corset of Catholic morality that’s been stifling proper debate and not permitting people to be treated as reasonable adults who can make their own informed choices. Hopefully, these four years will result in more debates about reproductive rights and health than ever before, and then, maybe the next government will finally bring about some real legislative and practical changes.