Women’s Reproductive Rights in Post-War Europe

Image Credit: Gdańsk – “Pro-family” demonstration by Maya-Anaïs Y./Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0.

By Kate Docking.

On 24 June 2021, a European Parliament resolution declared that sexual and reproductive rights are a fundamental aspect of women’s rights and gender equality. The document stressed that European Union member states should provide all women with ‘safe and legal’ access to abortion. The resolution drew on the ‘highly restrictive laws prohibiting abortion’ in some countries in the European Union, noting that this legislation – which forced women to obtain illegal abortions, travel to other countries for terminations, or to keep their pregnancy – was a ‘violation of human rights and a form of gender-based violence’.[1] This condemnation of stringent abortion legislation was undoubtedly a response to Poland’s recent adoption of legal prohibitions that in effect ban access to abortion services. As of 27 January 2021, abortion is now only legal in Poland in situations where the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is compromised. 

Yet in the 1950s, Poland had one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. In 1956, when abortion in western European countries was illegal, terminations were permitted in Poland where there was a threat to the mother’s life, in instances of crime, or when there were ‘exceptionally difficult living conditions’.[2] In 1959, the law was expanded so that abortions were allowed on request.[3] Indeed, women residing in all countries located in eastern Europe – apart from in East Germany and Albania – had access to abortion in 1956 or 1957. This remained in stark contrast to countries in the West, where abortion was not legalised until the 1970s.[4] However, legislation passed in 1993 severely curtailed the reproductive rights of women in Poland. This law banned abortion apart from in cases where the mother’s life was in danger, there were foetal abnormalities, or the pregnancy was due to illegal behaviour.[5] Under the current law, a foetus cannot be aborted on the grounds of ‘deficiencies’, which the Polish government has hailed as a success for the rights of disabled people.[6] In spite of progressively stricter abortion legislation since the 1990s, historically, the abortion law in Poland has indeed been liberal in comparison to states in the West.[7] How might we therefore explain the recent shift in Poland to strict abortion legislation? Adopting a historical perspective in relation to the topic of abortion can help us to understand how the country has arrived at such a stringent law. 

The prominence of the Catholic Church in Poland has been evoked as an explanation for the recent abortion legislation.[8] Indeed, in the 1990s, bishops started a campaign to ban abortion, which led to the 1993 law.[9] Yet during the early 1950s in Poland, the Church was, according to Kateřina Lišková, ‘the main driving force for free and unlimited access to abortion’.[10] If we follow this line of argument, the recently imposed anti-abortion legislation in Poland is thus not the result of the Church’s continued opposition to terminations, although, undeniably, the Church is in support of the law today. The ruling populist Law and Justice (PiS) party ultimately enacted the legislation and argued for the importance of upholding current Catholic values in doing so. However, evoking the explanation of populism and religion to account for the country’s stringent abortion law is not enough. We must rather take a broader look at women’s reproductive rights in post-war Poland beyond the theme of abortion. This can help us to question whether recent legislation does represent a complete break from attitudes towards women in the past or rather a continuity of older beliefs about gender, reproduction, and sexuality.

 It is worth questioning whether, overall, women did experience extensive reproductive rights in post-war Poland. While abortion laws in this country were indeed liberal in comparison to legislation in western countries, women in Poland had very limited access to contraception throughout the communist regime, since the state declared abortion as a ‘modern way to control fertility’. Family planning clinics opened in the 1970s and fathers as well as mothers attended birthing schools, which were hailed as signs of modernity. Yet, as the sociologist Kateřina Lišková has noted, family planning was grounded in gender stereotypes. When experts did advise about contraception, they described it as an important way to maintain ‘good looks’, which multiple births and pregnancies would tarnish.[11]

The work of sexologists maintained that sexual satisfaction involved a woman having a hierarchical relationship with their husband; this standpoint is evident in what has been hailed as the ‘most important Polish book on sex’, The Art of Loving, published in 1956 and authored by the sexologist and gynaecologist Michalina Wisłocka.[12] Wisłocka suggested that for a fulfilling sex life, women should only exist in the domestic space and allow men to dominate them. Wisłocka was also against abortion, arguing that it could entail physical complications and infertility. As Renata Ingbrandt has noted, Wisłocka ultimately conceptualised equal rights as something that challenged the ‘natural order’ of things.[13] Amongst sexologists, then, women’s equality and women’s reproductive rights were certainly not championed. 

The historian Dagmar Herzog has argued that we ought to move away from conceptualising the twentieth century as a period of increasing liberalisation and progress with regard to women’s reproductive rights in western Europe, and the anthropologist Agnieszka Kościańska has indicated that we must take a similar approach when analysing the reproductive rights of women in Poland.[14] Kościańska has argued that liberal policies associated with reproduction were not necessarily linked to women’s equality. Indeed, more generally, women were certainly not ‘emancipated’ during the socialist era in Poland. While they were encouraged to enter the workforce in the immediate post-war period, by the 1970s, women were largely associated with motherhood and the home.[15] If deeply rooted conceptualisations of women as existing merely to serve men persisted in spite of seemingly progressive legislation pertaining to reproduction, then women’s reproductive autonomy has remained vulnerable to being curtailed throughout the post-war period in Poland. This particular view of women has been espoused recently by both the Catholic Church and the PiS, but it also has a longer history in the post-war period.

It is further worth noting that Poland’s anti-abortion law was passed during the coronavirus pandemic; the contemporary circumstances surrounding the legislation thus must also be considered. As the political scientist Petra Guasti has noted, the pandemic represents a ‘new and unparalleled stress-test for the already disrupted liberal representative democracies’.[16] Pandemic-related restrictions prevented democratic discussions, but governments – such as the administration in Poland – utilised the unstable conditions brought about by the pandemic to push through illiberal legislation that had already been on the table for years. Indeed, in 2016, PiS members tried and failed to enact a complete ban on terminations.[17] While the recent abortion law does not contain the clause proposed in 2016 which criminalised miscarriage in ‘suspicious’ circumstances, the increase in authoritarian rule in Poland – caused in part by the pandemic, which provided the opportunity to enact long periods of emergencies – helped to facilitate the passing of the law.[18]       The European Parliament resolution of June 2021 declared that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected women’s health and rights.[19] Indeed, women in Malta were prevented from travelling to access abortions in countries such as France. Women were thus forced to risk prosecution by obtaining abortion pills online, and many suffered a huge decline in their mental and physical health.[20] It is thus ever more pertinent that laws curtailing women’s reproductive rights are reversed to prevent further deterioration of women’s wellbeing. As public health researchers Céline Miani and Oliver Razum noted in a recent article in the medical journal the Lancet, the ‘fragility’ of abortion access in Europe is a ‘public health crisis in the making’. The authors have noted that, even in Germany – a more ‘liberal’ society than Poland – access to abortion is fragile, since face-to-face consultation is mandatory before an abortion is granted. During the coronavirus pandemic, abortion pills were not sent to women by post, unlike in Britain and France, meaning that many pregnant women were simply unable to access terminations.[21] While abortion legislation in Poland is undoubtedly amongst the most severe in Europe, it is worth questioning whether the disconcerting rise of limited access to abortion is in fact a European-wide issue. If so, then religion and populism alone cannot explain the troubling trend. We must rather consider entrenched gendered attitudes and the pandemic conditions. Further explorations of women’s reproductive rights in post-war Europe, which analyse the policies that enabled women to exercise control over their bodies and those that did not, can help us to arrive today at legislative practices that provide women with the most reproductive freedom. By looking to the past, we may come to see that the policies and practices we use to guard reproductive freedoms are fragile and are perhaps in need of more protection now than ever before.

[1] ‘European Parliament resolution of 24 June 2021 on the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0314_EN.html, last accessed 29 July 2021.

[2] D. Herzog, Sex After Fascism (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 127. S. Kuźma-Markowska, ‘Marx or Malthus? Population debates and the reproductive politics of state-socialist Poland in the 1950s and 1960s’, The History of the Family, 25 (2020), p. 581.

[3] Kuźma-Markowska, ‘Marx or Malthus?’, p. 581.

[4] K. Lišková, ‘History of Medicine in Eastern Europe’, European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health (2021), p. 183, p. 182.

[5] W. Nowicka, ‘Two steps back: Poland’s new abortion law’, Plan. Parent Eur., 22 (1993), p. 18.

[6] ‘Poland enforces controversial near-total abortion ban’, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55838210, 28 January 2021, last accessed 4 October 2021. However, certain women’s disability rights groups have condemned the law. For example, Women Enabled International produced a statement which makes clear that the legislation stops the reproductive autonomy of women, including those with disabilities. The organisation upholds that women with disabilities are likely to be disproportionately negatively affected by the law, since discrimination means that they are less able to afford to travel elsewhere for abortions and also face inaccessible modes of transport. See ‘Statement on abortion access in Poland’, 26 October 2020, https://womenenabled.org/blog/abortion-access-in-poland/.

[7] K. Korycki, ‘Polish women reject the Catholic Church’s hold on their country’, The Conversation, 17 November 2020. 

[8] See, for example, Korycki, ‘Polish women reject the Catholic Church’s hold on their country’.

[9] F. Kissling, ‘The Church’s heavy hand in Poland’, Conscience, 12 (1991), p. 20. A. Kościańska, Gender, Pleasure and Violence(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020), p. 5.

[10] Lišková, ‘History of Medicine in Eastern Europe’, p. 191. 

[11] Lišková, ‘History of Medicine in Eastern Europe’, p. 183, p. 191, p. 183, p. 185.

[12] Kościańska, Gender, Pleasure and Violence, p. 4. 

[13] R. Ingbrandt, ‘Michalina Wisłocka’s The Art of Loving and the Legacy of Polish Sexology’, Sexuality and Culture, 24 (2020), p. 384, 372, p. 382, p. 383.

[14] D. Herzog, Sexuality in Europe (Cambridge: New York, 2011), p. 4.

[15] Kościańska, Gender, Pleasure and Violence, p. 6.

[16] P. Guasti, ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Central and Eastern Europe’, Democratic Theory, 7 (2020), p. 868.

[17] A. M. Kramer, ‘Polish abortion ban taps into wider fears for human rights’, The Conversation, 6 April 2016. Christian Davies, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/05/polish-government-performs-u-turn-on-total-abortion-ban, 5 October 2016, last accessed 4 October 2021.

[18] Kramer, ‘Polish abortion ban taps into wider fears for human rights’. 

[19] ‘European Parliament resolution of 24 June 2021 on the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0314_EN.html, last accessed 29 July 2021.

[20] C. Pierson and L. Caruana-Finkel, ‘Why it is vital to decriminalize abortion: the case of Malta’, The Conversation, 1 July 2021. 

[21] C. Miani and O. Razum, ‘The Fragility of Abortion Access in Europe: a public health crisis in the making’, The LancetCorrespondence, 7 August 2021.