Poland: New Restrictions on Abortion – Catholic Influence or a Populist Agenda?

Poland: New Restrictions on Abortion – Catholic Influence or a Populist Agenda?

Abortions in Poland on the grounds of foetal defects have become illegal. This was one of  the last remaining options of obtaining an abortion in the country alongside the pregnancy posing a serious threat to the mother’s life and the conception having taken place due to a criminal act such as incest or rape. The ruling has resulted in nation-wide protests despite pandemic restrictions. Only two of the thirteen judges of the Constitutional Court did not back the ruling: the majority of the judges are appointed by the right-wing PiS (Law and Justice) ruling party and it comes as no surprise that they would support the motion. But, what is the origin of this attack on women’s rights, the populist agenda of the PiS or longer term efforts by the Polish Catholic Church? 

Poland as a majority Catholic state traditionally has maintained a hard stance against abortion – similarly to Malta (which has the toughest abortion laws in Europe) and Northern Ireland (where prior to 2019 abortion was criminalised). Other Catholic-majority states across Europe have also been  contemplating tightening restrictions, evident in the recently unsuccessful proposal in Slovakia. Thus, a link between the politicisation of family planning and Catholicism as a state religion seems undeniable, albeit it being more pronounced in counties where the separation between church and state is blurred.  

The Church and Abortion  

The Catholic church has had a prominent role in restricting abortion in Poland since the fall of communism, and the origins of today’s protests lie in this history. Specialised Episcopal Commissions formulated the first law regarding abortion in the early 1990s and refused the possibility of holding a referendum on the matter as over 58 percent of citizens polled in 1993 opposed the church’s views. Given the historical importance of the Catholic church within Polish society in times of hardship and transition, the first democratically elected government believed the support of the church was invaluable and concessions over  reproductive rights legislation were seen as necessary. Thus, the compromise reached at the time  resulted in the 1993 Family Planning Law which criminalised the act with the exception of the three  above-mentioned circumstances, one of which has been overturned now.  

A key point when the church further utilised its influence over the state in an effort to uphold abortion restrictions was during the early 2000s. The Church weaponised its supporters by stating that it would only advocate for Poland’s ascension in the European Union (which relied upon a successful referendum) if the abortion law was kept intact. Despite the law being in violation of  EU principles and the election promises of the left-liberal SLD who ruled at the time, the legislation remained the same due to the church’s efforts. Protesters now blame the new restrictions in part to the Church’s long-term involvement in political life as a moral authority. For the first time activists are disrupting church services across the country, and women are dressing up as handmaids in reference to Margaret Atwood’s famous novel detailing a society built upon  religiously-backed repression of women. This is a clear indicator that a large part of the Polish youth today do not see a place for Catholic influence in political affairs.  

Populism and Abortion  

The current protests are acquiring an anti-government characteristic as well, despite the core  activist groups behind them upholding the initial demands focused on women’s reproductive rights.  Nonetheless, PiS has been the main actor facilitating the new restrictions and it is key to understand  why this change was necessary for their populist agenda and why now was the time to implement it. 

The latter question is more easily answered, given the experience of their previous failure in 2016.  

Firstly, in 2016 the proposed bill was intended to pass through parliament, which it did not due to  the protests at the time. Now PiS filed their motion through the Constitutional Tribunal, which acts according to the ruling party following the appointment of a PiS loyalist President, Julia Przylebska. Secondly, the new restrictions are a scaling down of the previous proposal, which called for an outright ban and a provision for imprisonment. Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic offered an added obstacle to possible civil unrest, albeit that has not proven to be the case. All these factors combined with a large time gap before elections in 2023 contributed to the PiS acting on this issue now.  

The reasoning behind the restrictions is more complex. Aspects of populism apply to this issue. Populist politicians have heavily exhibited an anti-expert and anti-scientific stance in their policy making, and PiS’s reliance on the importance of traditional values for the survival of Polish society is in contradiction with technological developments specifically regarding reproduction. The  new restrictions are a continuation of their stride to minimise the influence of science on family life,  which is already evident from their policies towards IVF treatment and the morning after pill.  Consequently, populism hinges upon legitimation through myths about the nation – to be Polish is  equated to being Catholic. Thus, the dichotomy of the “people”, majority Polish Catholics, versus the “others”, mainly marginalised groups, becomes the raison d’etre for policy making. Women,  who refuse to adhere to Catholic values, simply fall into the latter group.  


While PiS’s approach appears to be one of successful populism, in reality this decision could be very damaging. Polls suggest that only 15 percent of the public was in support of the tighter restrictions and protests slogans are calling for their resignation. In the short term, it is likely the ruling party would delay implementation, soften its stance insignificantly as to appear to be conceding and insist on Covid-19 restrictions to prevent large gatherings. Another major political decision might be successive to this one and used to shift focus. The Church has correspondingly also been under attack by protesters, who have vandalised Church property. While there has been a surge in people deregistering, it is unlikely that the religious elite would revise their attitude towards the issue. For both the government and the Church, this might prove to be a pivotal moment long term. The Church would be able to maintain their role as  moral authority if it accepts aspects of modernisation that are inevitable akin to Pope Francis’s  diversified approach. Similarly, PiS could reproduce their electoral success if their insistence on traditional values is practised in a more limited manner, unless they intend to target women’s voting rights next. 

Categories: Europe, Politics

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