The recent change in power in Poland from October 2015 has put the populist, conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) party in charge. While its controversial laws on public institutions, particularly the one paralysing the Constitutional Court, have already caused significant national and international turmoil, the party’s less spectacular anti-feminist and anti-LGBT agenda has also become more pronounced. This is partially due to conservative grassroots organisations. More importantly, the Roman Catholic Church has been making clear calls to the ruling party in order to repay them for their electoral support with stronger legislation on issues related to gender and sexuality. If PiS answers these calls, Poland may soon end up with a nearly total ban on abortion.
The crusade against so-called ‘gender ideology’ started in Poland with a pastoral letter by the Bishops’ Conference of Poland, which was communicated to all Catholics across the country at the end of 2013. Only vaguely defined, ‘gender ideology’ was associated with feminism, homosexuality and transgenderism, and denounced as a threat to ‘the Christian family and the fundamental values that support it’. Conservative politicians soon reinforced the Church’s crusade by establishing a parliamentary group, ‘Stop Gender Ideology!’, in January 2014, as did some grassroots activists, by pushing for a bill criminalising nearly all forms of abortion, in September 2015. The Polish Parliament, then still led by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), rejected the abortion bill, keeping the so-called ‘abortion compromise’ intact: abortion remains illegal in Poland unless the mother’s life or health are endangered, she became pregnant as a result of a criminal act or the foetus is seriously malformed.
The stand of the centre-right PO party, in power between 2007 and 2015, on feminist and LGBT issues was moderately sympathetic and largely ineffective. The party managed to launch a programme reimbursing the costs of in-vitro fertilization (July 2013) and to ratify the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (February 2015), even when the latter was accused by conservatives of sneaking in ‘gender ideology’. Yet, the party failed to pass any of the civil partnership bills brought before Parliament during the PO’s term of office, including one proposed by the party itself, in January 2013. It was also incapable of overcoming its internal divisions or keeping its more conservative coalition partner, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), in line when it came to passing the Gender Accordance Act. This act, which would have allowed Polish citizens to change their legal gender with the support of two expert opinions, went through the Parliament but was then vetoed by the newly appointed president, Andrzej Duda, who was supported by PiS. PO and PSL could, but did not, override the president’s veto.
The results of the parliamentary elections in October 2015 came as a shock to Polish feminist and LGBT activists. Even though all the polls had predicted the victory of PiS, few imagined that the party would secure the majority of seats in Parliament. PiS obtained 37.6 per cent of all votes, but this share gave the party 235 out of 460 seats. This was possible because two left-wing parties did not reach the electoral threshold: United Left (ZL) got stuck at 7.5 per cent of all votes, just under the threshold of 8 per cent for coalitions, and the Together party (Razem) received only 3.6 per cent, well below the threshold of 5 per cent for individual parties. Consequently, more than 11 per cent of left-wing voters have no representation in the current parliament, while PiS, together with its own president, assumed undivided and nearly full control of the country. The party did not, however, secure a qualified majority, which is two-thirds of all seats, required to change the Constitution. This takeover of power by PiS has instilled new fears among feminist and LGBT activists, who got a taste of the party’s homophobia between 2005 and 2007, when PiS led a coalition government and made the ‘homosexual lobby’ one of its key targets.
Now fully in charge and under the slogan of ‘Good Change’, the party started passing new laws at breakneck speed, in some cases overnight. The issues of gender and sexuality, however, did not immediately come to the front of the new government’s agenda and the discourse of ‘gender ideology’ has seemed to be fading since PiS came to power. Most attention has been given to new legislation on the police, special forces, public service, then-public-now-national media and, above all, the Constitutional Court. The attempted changes to the latter provoked nationwide protests, united under the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), and a major legal crisis. The new law impacting the Constitutional Court would significantly slow down its work and, consequently, allow the Court to assess the constitutionality of this very law only in the long term. Thus, the Court decided to ignore the law and, following only the Constitution, soon ruled that the new law is unconstitutional. The Government, however, claimed that this ruling was not binding because it had not been issued according to the new law, and decided not to publish it. As a result, the Court and the Government now seem to operate within different legal systems, making it difficult to assess which decisions are now legally binding in Poland.
In the turmoil of such conflicts, issues related to gender and sexuality have slipped from the awareness of the general public, at least until very recently. Still, as gender and sexuality scholar Magdalena Mikulak points out, the anti-feminist and anti-LGBT stance of the party has materialized in, for example, the decision by the new president to veto the Gender Accordance Act in October 2015. In January 2016, the Ministry of Justice further announced that it would discontinue work on amendments to the Penal Code that would allow for the prosecution of hate speech committed against LGBT people. Also in January 2016, the parliament sharply reduced the budget of the Polish Ombudsman, arguing that, as the MP Arkadiusz Mularczyk explained, ‘the Parliament is not going to pay for gender’. This close association of the Ombudsman with ‘gender ideology’ became clear for PiS when the previous Parliament chose Adam Bodnar for the office in 2015. Bodnar had received the Tolerantia-Award by the Berlin Alliance against Homophobia and Transphobia, and was criticised by Mularczyk for choosing a Gender Studies professor, Sylwia Spurek, as his deputy.
Finally, and most frighteningly, in March of this year, anti-choice activists once again submitted to Parliament the bill which would punish all cases of abortion, unless the mother’s life is in direct danger, with imprisonment from three months to five years. Their stance was soon supported by Polish Bishops, who in their statement, communicated on April 3rd in churches across the country, demanded the government tighten current provisions on abortions. Some prominent politicians from the ruling party, including its leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the prime minister Beata Szydło, have already announced their support for the change in the law, though their stance has recently become vaguer. At the same time, the proposed bill, and the Bishops’ statement in particular, sparked nation-wide protests, which will hopefully bring politicians to their senses and prevent the tightening of what is already one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Anti-choice activists now have three months, until the beginning of July, to collect 100,000 signatures in support of their bill and to bring it before Parliament as a Citizen’s Initiative.
It is likely that anti-choice activists will collect the necessary signatures to present their bill to Parliament. How the Parliament will vote, however, remains uncertain. On the one hand, a nearly total ban on abortion may be too much even for some conservative politicians, and PiS has already announced that it will not enforce party discipline on the issue. On the other hand, the party cannot simply ignore a call from its major supporter, the Roman Catholic Church, and may feel the need to reaffirm its affiliation to the Church. Therefore, at least some tightening of the current abortion law is likely to happen in Poland this year. The discussion around the abortion law, in turn, may bring the discourse of ‘gender ideology’ back to the centre of the Polish public debate, once again polarizing society around the issues of gender and sexuality. Explicitly invoked or subtly enforced, the political crusade against ‘gender ideology’, directed against women’s and LGBT rights, will most certainly continue in the country as long as the new government remains in power.
Łukasz Szulc is a postdoctoral fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He has a PhD in Communication Studies (University of Antwerp) and MA and BA in Journalism and Communication Studies (Jagiellonian University, Poland). His key academic interests include the cultural and social roles of media, as well as sexuality and transnationalism, especially in regard to Poland and the Polish diaspora. More about Łukasz is available on his website. He tweets from @LukaszSzulc.
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