Religious Ideology v. Feminism: How Poland’s Growing Feminist Movement is Challenging the Catholic Church

For centuries, Poland was a patriarchal society defined by the Catholic Church, confining women to traditional roles, with the Church and foreign powers reinforcing women’s subordination to men through cultural traditions and customs. While foreign entities occupied Poland, the Polish Church, seen as the mother of Poland, became the only stability and source of resistance in the country, cementing the idea that to be Polish was to be Catholic. Communist attempts to discredit the Church’s authority increased the Church’s popularity, prompting citizens to proclaim their faith and follow the Church as a form of resistance to communist rule. Despite the communist government passing legislation encouraging women to work and to alleviate women’s domestic tasks, Poles’ assertion of Catholicism inhibited any real change in gender roles and relations, as the Catholic doctrine confined women to a motherly, domestic role.

Communism’s attempts to redefine women’s roles from traditional patriarchal roles left a legacy of distrust of feminism, and thus, the feminist movement has been slow to emerge since the fall of communism in the 1980s, when Poland received an influx of Western goods. These goods provided an opportunity to introduce contraceptives into society; however, Pope John Paul II allied with pro-life Poles and introduced Catholic family planning in Poland. The post-communist era reinstated the Church’s authority in society, mandating religion classes in schools and priests as teachers. These classes deteriorated women’s status, encouraging domesticity through their rhetoric. Thus, the Church is the dominant moral authority in Poland, formulating the norms of acceptable behavior in politics and society. The Church has been reasserting its presence in Poland at a time when Poles are becoming less religious, and the Church can still influence political debates, as many politicians try to avoid controversial topics like reproductive rights. Competition for political positions and politicians’ fears of losing power reinforces the Church’s influence in politics. Although the Polish Parliament has passed legislation regarding work and maternity, these laws mostly act as a formality and do not impact day-to-day lives. The vastly influential Church, the main hurdle for feminist and women’s rights movements and organizations, is the root of the lack of and opposition to gender equality and reproductive rights, spreading its ideology through its presence in schools and political debates.

European Union

In 2004, when Poland joined the European Union (EU), many Poles within the feminist community had the idea that EU accession would immediately create equality, quieting the feminist movement during the accession process (1997-2004). This process requires adherence to the acquis communautaire, a common set of rules ensuring values such as human rights, equality, or environmental issues embedded in EU legislation. However, this adherence has not assuaged gender discrimination in Poland, especially in the workforce. EU accession has actually reinvigorated religious rhetoric in politics, associating women with motherhood and the nuclear family. Instead of improving women’s reproductive rights, Poland’s EU accession legitimized Polish laws adhering to pro-life ideology. Additionally, EU governing bodies have limited influence on Polish political parties regarding reproductive rights because, legally, the EU cannot intervene on moral values, including abortion. Many feminists in Poland say that they thought joining the EU would make a large impact on reproductive rights but that they are now uncertain about the future of reproductive rights because the EU has not drastically improved the situation in Poland.

Since Poland joined the EU, the Polish people’s approval of the EU is increasing, but attitudes toward gender equality have experienced limited change. Up to 87% of Poles, the highest percentage in the EU, do not believe that gender equality is a fundamental right, posing a problem for future feminist or women’s rights movements. Many women are unhappy with the state-sponsored provisions for gender equality, and some women have appealed to European legislative and judicial bodies to try to ensure their rights. The European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Polish State in a case where a Polish woman was unable to receive an abortion even though the law entitled her to do so. Furthermore, the Council of Europe stated that women should legally have access to abortion to ensure safety rather than forcing women to have unsafe illegal abortions; however, the EU is unable to take any legislative action regarding abortion. Women’s organizations use “Europeanization”, or becoming more like Western Europe, as an argument for the improvement of women’s rights and access to safe abortion. Furthermore, many Poles emigrate from Poland and move to other European countries with greater gender equality and more open ideas regarding reproductive rights. Currently Poland is at a crossroads: now that it is a member of the EU, it must legally ensure equal rights and oppose discrimination; however, Poland remains one of the most religiously parochial countries in Europe.

Abortion and Reproductive Rights

Abortion was made legal in Poland in 1956 under the Condition of Permissibility of Abortion Act, which overturned the abortion ban in place since 1932. Women from all over Europe traveled to Poland for abortions from 1956 through 1993, a time when the state subsidized abortion. Polish women saw abortion as a fundamental right; however, the Polish government severely restricted abortions in 1993 when it approved the 1993 Family Planning Act. Since then, abortion in Poland is only legal under three conditions: the pregnancy or prospective birth would endanger the mother’s health or life, the fetus has a high risk determined by using prenatal tests, or the pregnancy was the result of a criminal act. This law was seen as a compromise, merging proposed liberal and conservative bills, but it sparked few pro-abortion grassroots movements. The compromise in 1993 established the current tension surrounding every aspect of women’s reproductive rights, but especially those surrounding abortion in Poland today.

As a result of the abortion ban, Poland has a thriving underground abortion market, with an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 illegal abortions and only 200 legal abortions in Poland each year. An illegal abortion in Poland costs between 2,000 and 5,000 PLN ($493.53-$1,233.82), when the average gross salary in Poland is 2,000 PLN ($493.53). Thus, illegal abortions are restricted to wealthy individuals. Illegal abortions are a lucrative industry in Poland: individuals seeking illegal abortions have nowhere else to turn and therefore doctors performing these procedures can charge any price. Thus, pro-choice movements find it challenging to mobilize doctors to their cause, as they are making so much money in the underground abortion market. Even when a woman is legally allowed to receive an abortion, she faces harassment from pro-life groups, and doctors can enact the “conscience clause” that allows pro-life doctors to refuse abortions on moral grounds. To cement the problem, the Polish government does not enforce the legal right to abortion even though its laws state that women in certain situations have the legal right to an abortion. Poland currently has a de facto abortion ban, as many doctors are unwilling or scared to perform legal abortions because they want to avoid stigma and risk for their hospitals or practices. The Church states that this de facto abortion ban is the current social compromise. However, 74% of Poles would rather keep the current legislation than pass a bill proposing a complete ban on abortions, indicating that the majority of the Polish population is in favor of allowing abortions in certain conditions rather than a de facto or complete legal ban.

Many Polish youth are morally opposed to abortions, mainly due to the Church’s influence through the role of priests in education in public schools, calling the fetus or embryo “conceived life” or “conceived child” as rhetoric to discourage abortion. The Church uses these terms to focus on the fetus rather than the mother, which encourages pro-life supporters to think of abortion as the “civilization of death”. While many Poles view abortion as unacceptable, contraception might seem a rational precaution to take for many women; however, that is not the case in reality. Despite the fact that female contraceptives are legal in Poland, the Church exerts such influence that it can affect the availability of these methods. Additionally, many doctors will refuse to prescribe female contraceptives for moral or cultural reasons. Poles have limited literacy concerning contraceptives and different methods of contraception, and women must have awareness and money to find effective, accessible contraceptives. For example, a monthly pill costs six to ten percent of a monthly minimum wage.  Thus, only the wealthy and those willing to put in an effort to find contraceptives will have a reliable method of contraception (other than condoms), making reproductive rights a class issue in addition to a gender issue.

Having previously rejected a pro-choice bill aiming to liberalize Poland’s abortion laws, on 8 October 2016, the Polish Parliament rejected a proposed bill that would have been a near-total ban on abortions. Although Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, the proposed bill, backed by the ruling right wing party, PiS, and the Catholic Church, would have criminalized all abortions, punished women with up to five years in prison and assisting doctors liable for prosecution and prison. Polish women received press around the world for their protests, marches, and strikes. Only fifteen percent of Poles opposed the strike, despite Poland having the lowest acceptance of abortion in Europe. Opponents to the complete abortion ban argue that a complete ban would not only deprive women of the choice of what to do with their own bodies but also would allow an underground market to thrive, which would be dangerous and encourage abortion-seeking Poles to get abortions abroad. Additional criticisms include that women suffering miscarriages could be under criminal suspicion and that the bill would discourage doctors from conducting routine procedures on pregnant women for fear of being accused of facilitating abortion. Women opposing the proposed bill argued that the complete ban was against fundamental reproductive and human rights, threatening to women’s safety and dignity. Both supporters and critics of the bill are unhappy with the current situation of reproductive rights in Poland, leaving the debate at a stalemate.


Poland’s debate itself lacks many key aspects needed to grant women their reproductive rights. There are many aspects of reproductive rights, such as sexual education, access to contraceptives, and hospital conditions (especially maternity wards); however, Poland’s reproductive rights debate focuses on abortion, disregarding larger issues and multiple aspects of reproductive rights. Furthermore, Polish legal language limits social and political discourse for improving reproductive rights because there is no term for reproductive rights that is defined as ‘protection of reproductive health and self-determination in reproductive matters.’ In order to make progress on these issues, this crucial term must be defined in order to have meaningful discourse regarding women’s agency.

There are 150-200 women’s groups in Poland, most of which advocate for political and reproductive rights with some intervening in other areas like socio-economic rights. Many women want to have children, but limited access to the labor market inhibits their ability to care for any children they may have. Thus, a solution to this problem is to clear any restrictions women have to the labor market, such as the pay gap, employer gender discrimination, and ideas of domesticity for women, although this would take many years to achieve. Polish feminist movements are actively trying to alter laws, so changing labor restrictions for women is well within these organizations’ goals. To change laws, however, pro-choice women must gain representation in Poland’s political bodies. The main opponent to women’s rights is the Church: the Church claims to protect women’s rights, although many feminists define themselves as Catholic. Much of the debate about Polish feminism concerns how to define it rather than on advocating important women’s issues and grounding these issues in the Polish context. Growing feminist groups and organizations are slowly starting to engage women in projects or activities that increase participation, but this engagement needs to improve. Women need to advocate for themselves and convince other men to advocate for them; however, without a large movement promoting gender equality, Poland will achieve little progress in the area of women’s and reproductive rights.

However, the presence of the Church in Poland creates a difficult atmosphere to obtaining gender equality and reproductive rights in comparison to many secular countries also experiencing a push for equal rights and reproductive rights. To combat these religious ideas confining women to “traditional” or domestic roles will have a few steps. The first step consists of understanding the Church’s rhetoric and rationale concerning their positions on women’s rights and reproductive rights. The second step would be to use the Church’s own rhetoric to push back and argue for gender equality and reproductive rights, starting with less controversial issues and moving onto those issues once the movement has momentum and support. Although these steps are not perfect, they roughly outline the process feminist movements must take in order to combat the rhetoric of the Catholic Church.