This post begins and ends with a holiday. Recent news from the Irish Republic about the abortion debate reminded me of my first ever visit to Ireland, a cycling trip with a friend from Dublin to Dun Chaoin at the end of the Dingle Peninsula with its magical view out over the Great Blasket to the vast Atlantic stretching away behind it. This was in 1983 when the big news topic was the upcoming referendum to amend the constitution to include a clause protecting the unborn, effectively putting abortion, or rather the ban on abortion, beyond the legislative reach of the Dail. It became quickly apparent just how much power the Roman Catholic hierarchy exercised 60 years after partition. We didn’t , of course, know that, just a few streets away from where we were staying, ‘fallen’ women were still slaving away in laundries for the good of their immortal souls.
This was before the child abuse scandals which, conventional wisdom has it, have broken the Church as a political force. Recent reports from Ireland, concerning both abortion and possible legislation to criminalise sex work, suggest that the demise of the Church has been much exaggerated.
Further east the position in one of Europe’s arch Catholic countries was a little different then. Communism was crumbling in Poland to the extent that only a military coup had been able to shore up the system and 1983 was a from year of shortages, power cuts and so on. Nonetheless it had brought some benefits to women. Abortion and contraception were both freely available. Not that I wanted to exaggerate the benefits. Most women worked and received little help at home with cooking and child rearing. They also bore the brunt of the soul destroying waits in queues before empty shops. Nonetheless they were spared the worst effects of ecclesiastical misogyny.
This all changed in 1989. It is important to say that Poland has become a relatively stable democracy in the last twenty four years. The clergy have had to learn the hard way that Poles will not put up with instructions from the pulpit on election day. Indeed between 1995 and 2005 neither the President nor Prime Minister were Catholics. This was a disappointment to the likes of the Primate Cardinal Glemp who genuinely wanted Poland to become a confessional state but he soon discovered that he could bully governments of any colour and the list of demands was soon handed in, a Concordat was demanded and granted, Church lands confiscated by the Communists were restored, resulting in an unseemly land grab, while a systematic attack on the rights of women was orchestrated.
A ban on abortion was introduced in 1993. This has resulted in two important cases being brought to the ECHR. The first was that of Alicja Tysiac who wanted an abortion for health reasons, specifically that she had impaired vision and her pregnancy carried a threat of her losing her eyesight altogether. Polish law would actually have allowed her to have one but she could not find a doctor willing to perform one. The other case involved a 14 year old girl, pregnant following a rape, who was similarly denied an abortion. Polish law does have limited exemptions to the ban as I mentioned above but in practice the right to a termination can be difficult to enforce. Even these limited exemptions are under threat. There are some on the right pressing for an Irish style amendment to the constitution but, thankfully, nothing has come of this yet.
What the Church wants, it generally gets. There will be no in vitro fertilisation anytime soon, and no gay marriage. I have discussed Poland’s antediluvian attitudes to LGBT people here. Having said that Poland does not have its first openly gay MP and the world’s only transgender MP, Anna Grodzka. They are both members of the Palikot’s Movement party, named after its founder, a millionaire businessman called Janusz Palikot. this party standing on an openly anti-clerical platform achieved 10% of the vote in the last elections and as much as 25% amongst first time voters suggesting that things are changing. Palikot is saying things that need to be said but has a history of opportunism and if advances in women’s rights and LGBT rights are in his hands we need to worry.
The Church is keen to promote the idea of the ‘Matka Polka’ the devoted mother who stays at home to care for her children, to cook and clean for her husband and so on. In reality most women in Poland work. Low wages mean that families with children cannot survive on one income. At work they enjoy little job security. What does the allegedly pro-life Church have to say about employers who sack women for becoming pregnant? You’ve guessed it – nothing. At home, as in Communist days, the work falls mainly on their shoulders.
Domestic violence has never been taken seriously by many in Poland. It doesn’t happen, many people think, because every Polish man is a gentleman who opens doors, gives up his seat on the bus and would never dream of raising his hand against a woman. Some twenty years ago a left of centre government funded a helpline for victims of domestic violence, with a hard hitting poster campaign to publicise it. The scale of the problem quickly became apparent, painfully so for many Poles, so much so, in fact that a minister in the subsequent right of centre government withdrew funding on the grounds that it was encouraging Catholic mothers to desert their families and, therefore, wrong. He had nothing to say about the abuse that drove women to do this.
So we arrive in 2013 and my latest holiday. I had the chance to discuss these issues with some women but sadly the general awareness of them is low. One woman I spoke to suggested that Alicja Tysiac was a ‘whore’ for wanting a termination to save her sight. Feminism is seen as the hobby of a handful of educated metropolitan women and of no relevance to others in their daily struggle to make ends meet. Some Polish women have had successful careers in business and politics. They are the exception. The power of the Church has been a major factor (but not the only one) in making Polish women second class citizens in their own country. If the position of Polish women in 1983 was in some respects better than that of Irish women it certainly isn’t now.