by Melania Parzonka
For the past week, whilst stuck in the Tier 2 lockdown in London, I was feeling incredibly restless. Poland has been witnessing protests of an unprecedented scale in the country's independent history. On 22 October, the partisan Polish constitutional court ruled abortion due to congenital defects illegal. Polls show extremely low support for the ruling—only 13% of the Polish population welcomed the new restrictions. In response, thousands of outraged citizens blocked major junctions in big cities and demonstrated. Women stormed churches, risking clashes with right-wing militias after a dark appeal from the ruling party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which called for the protection of places of worship.
What’s happening in Poland is not an isolated incident. The protests come at the same moment as Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the US Supreme Court, which some are worried could threaten current abortion regulations in the United States.
Whilst discussing the gravity and meaning of the current protests in Poland, a friend suggested I read a 1929 series of essays from Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski. Boy-Zelenski’s multidisciplinary background was a testimony to his time: by profession, he was a gynecologist and a pediatrician, but he is primarily remembered as a writer and a translator of almost 100 French literary classics. What struck me was the relevance of his texts today—a sad realisation that, despite social changes that took place across the 20th century, we are being forced back to the same point at which we found ourselves nearly 100 years ago.
Boy-Zelenski engaged in the same battle Polish women are fighting today. Together with a publicist called Irena Krzywicka, he advocated for abortion law reform and fairer reproductive rights—in the 1930s, the two activists ran the first family planning clinic in Warsaw. Boy-Zelenski’s 1929 series of essays was written merely 11 years after women received the right to vote in Poland and called attention to the consequences of illegal abortions, which were fully banned up until 1932. This collection of writings on the abortion law was called “Women’s Hell,” and its expressive title has inspired slogans during the recent wave of protests. Below is an excerpt from the opening essay of the series:
“Das größte Verbrechen des Strafgesetzes”—“The greatest crime of criminal law” is how a German scholar described the legal article, figuring in almost all legislation, designating grave punishments for termination of pregnancy. (...) Life has always been stronger than legal acts and penal sanctions in this regard; modern life even more so in a changing environment. Hence—as it is deemed equivocally—this law is dead; the circumstances in which it is raised are rare compared to the overwhelming number of crimes committed under it. In this case—one could say—this legal article is indifferent: if it exists on paper but is not applied, can’t we consider it a form of innocent moral protest against reprehensible conduct? Unfortunately, that is not the case; this article, while not bearing any power to help, carries enormous potential to harm. It is only referenced in the event of a mother’s death, then it rages and accuses; but if you look closer, you can see that it is itself often the cause of death. Because this law—incapable of preventing terminations of pregnancy where the imperative of life, stronger than all penal codes, pressures the mother—has enough power to strip the mother of any support and push her towards prosecutable—actually prosecutable—crude medical procedure.
If you’d compare the cases of young female deaths, cases of long and permanent and grave disability resulting from the current heartlessly supported state of legal affairs, maybe those who draft these laws would shiver in their comfortable seats. And if you’d include all the other secondary damages: suicides, infanticides, and other disasters, then we would understand how righteous it is to call the paragraph “the greatest crime of criminal law.”
Boy-Zelenski’s activism brought tangible changes to the Polish legal system. In 1932, the Polish Penal Code stipulated that although abortion remained illegal, it could be performed in some exceptional cases: if the pregnancy resulted from a crime, or if it threatened the mother’s life. The constitutional court’s 22 October ruling limiting exceptions to the abortion ban brought back the regulations from 1932—thereby causing the discussion about reproductive rights to regress nearly 90 years.
During World War II, with German occupation came a drastic liberalisation of abortion laws in Poland. Between 1943 and 1945, according to the politics of advancing racial purity aimed at Slavic women, abortion was made available on demand. The law was intended to curb reproduction rates of occupied Slavic people, who were considered an inferior race.
After the war, the 1932 ban was reimposed. Unlike in Western Europe, where pro-choice activism did not gain momentum until the 1960s and 1970s, the actual liberalisation of abortion laws in Poland came about slightly earlier. On 26 April 1956, the Penal Code added a third exception to the abortion ban: termination of pregnancy could now be performed due to socioeconomic factors, confirmed by a medical assessment.
Despite the fact that the liberalisation of abortion laws came as a result of a grassroots movement spearheaded by Polish women, it is no longer remembered as such. I have detailed Poland’s historical challenges surrounding the introduction of progressive social changes under communism in another article. Poland’s history of reproductive rights activism is another example of such a challenge—abortion has been now reduced to one of the evils of the communist system. Today, it is not uncommon for Catholic officials and Polish politicians to draw parallels between abortion rights activists and Stalin and Hitler.
The reversal of the relatively liberal approach to abortion came after Polish independence from communist rule. As Catholic factions gained more influence in the government, the issue of abortion was raised despite multiple waves of protests ranging from 1989 to 1993, when 1.7 million signatures were raised to demand a nationwide referendum on the new law. Banning abortion was an example of the Church’s emerging political power, which played a vital role in fostering opposition to communism.
The scale of the protests today confirms that women refuse to suffer in the name of Catholic values. I can only hope that the rage of Polish women will turn history around once again.
Melania Parzonka is Web Editor at INTERZINE. She specializes in the modern history of the post-Soviet region. In the past, she has published articles with VICE Poland and The Calvert Journal.