Over the past several decades, Polish women's ability to access sexual and reproductive health services and exercise reproductive autonomy has severely decreased. Poland is at the forefront of a growing European conservative movement that seeks to reverse the trend among European Union member countries to implement liberal reproductive and sexual health policies. This conservative movement also seeks to increase the influence of religious authorities over civil society.1
Poland leads this conservative movement in its enactment of draconian laws restricting reproductive health rights. The introduction of 1993's anti-abortion act restricted women's right to abortion by permitting the procedure only if a woman's health is in danger, if the fetus is irreparably damaged or has an incurable, life threatening illness, or if the pregnancy results from a criminal act, such as rape or incest.2 This narrow law has led to a growing underground practice of abortion and it is estimated that between 80,000 and 200,000 illegal and often unsafe abortions are performed in Poland each year.3
The number of illegal abortions in Poland stems not only from the restrictive anti-abortion law, but also from restricted access to contraception. As of 2001, less than 50% of Polish citizens used any form of modern contraception and only 11% of women reported using birth control pills.4 This low level of contraceptive usage is due to conservative government public health policies that confuse women by not providing comprehensive family planning education, often impose religious biases on women, and leave women to bear the total cost of contraception by not offering any subsidy for modern methods.5
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has expressed alarm over the effect that Poland's restrictive abortion laws, lack of access to family planning, and lack of comprehensive sexuality education have on women's rights and health.6 Despite this criticism and concern from the U.N., the League of Polish Families, a fundamentalist, right-wing parliamentary coalition has introduced legislation that would create a constitutional amendment banning all abortions by including language that grants legal protections to all life, from the moment of conception.7
In addition, members of the Parliamentarian Committee for Family and Women's Rights (CFWR) are developing a National Program for Family Support that would impose more stringent legal limits to accessing oral contraception, which is currently only available by prescription. CFWR has also proposed that oral contraception carry health warning labels similar to those on cigarettes as a means of deterring women from using birth control pills.8 Some members of parliament have also suggested limiting access to condoms, claiming that use of condoms reduces a woman's fertility.9
The proposals by the League of Polish Families and others to further reduce women's rights have won the backing of the powerful Polish Roman Catholic Church and several right-wing, conservative U.S. organizations including the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and Human Life International. Not surprisingly, these and other U.S. organizations, including The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, the Institute for American Values, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council, have chosen Poland as the perfect place to host the Fourth World Congress of Families (WCF).
Held for the first time in Prague in 1997, the WCF bills itself as the world's largest conference of pro-family leaders and grass roots activists.10 The organizations involved in cosponsoring and planning the conference support a conservative and exclusionary agenda that restricts sexual and reproductive rights under the guise of promoting “traditional family values.”
Poland was chosen for the site of the 2007 conference specifically because of its track record in restricting sexual and reproductive rights through limited access to abortion and contraception and continued inequality and stigmatization against its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community. In addition, since one of the goals of the WCF is to promote “religious orthodoxy as the source of humane values and cultural progress,” U.S.-based members of the WCF also see Poland as an ideal model because of the influence of the Catholic Church on state policy.11
“Holding the conference in Poland is a strategic move,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. “By joining conservative European and U.S. forces, conference planners hope to create a stronger global network of opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights allowing them greater influence on policy, both at the national and international level.”
For more information about the assault on sexual and reproductive rights in Poland and the rise of right-wing ideology, see Barbara Crossette, Special Report on Poland: Exorcising the Past, Imperiling the Future , Catholics for a Free Choice, at: http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/cEuropeanSupplement_Specialreportonpoland.asp
For more information on the World Congress of Families IV, see www.worldcongress.org , and Volume 3, Issue 1 of SIECUS' Making the Connection at: http://188.8.131.52/inter/connection/Connection3_1.pdf
- Barbara Crossette, Special Report on Poland: Exorcising the Past, Imperiling the Future, (Washington, DC: Catholics for a Free Choice, November 2006), accessed 27 November 2006, <http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/cEuropeanSupplement_Specialreportonpoland.asp>.
- Christina Zampas, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Europe , (Poland: ASTRA Network, 2006), accessed 27 November 2006, <http://www.astra.org.pl/srhrEU.pdf>.
- Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Poland (Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2004), accessed 01 December 2006, < http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/66db176cabc27b16c1256f43005ba2e7?Opendocument >.
- “Polish Right Wants Abortion Ban Written Into Constitution,” Agence France-Presse , 27 October 2006, accessed 22 November 2006, <http://www.pushjournal.org>.
- “Limiting Access to Contraception by Law,” Polish Repro News, 19 November 2006, accessed 22 November 2006, <http://www.astra.org.pl>.
- World Congress of Families: Warsaw 2007 , (27 November 2007), accessed 27 November 2006, <http://www.worldcongress.org/WCF4/wcf4.ini.htm>.