Religion, Politics and Gender Equality in Poland

By Jacqueline Heinen and Stéphane Portet

By Jacqueline Heinen and Stéphane Portet

September 2009

The prestige and the influence of the Polish Church is closely linked to its historical presence and activity during the long period when Poland was occupied by foreign countries (throughout the 19th century) and under communist rule. Its popularity reached new heights in the 1980s with the mass following of the independent trade union, Solidarnosc, which also had links with the clergy. The post-communist era reinforced the power of the Church through the Concordat that it signed with the State in 1993; this institutionalized the Church’s presence within the education system and gave the priests the status of ordinary teachers. Using its formal and informal ties with political parties, over the past two decades the Church has reinforced its power in public debates. Catholicism is the de facto religion of the State, even though Poland remains a secular country.

One significant illustration of this influence, albeit contested, was the adoption in 1993 of an act often named “Anti-abortion law”, which followed broadly the bill issued in 1988 at the initiative of the Catholic Church (still under communist rule) and which entailed a quasi ban on abortion (few exceptions are authorized by the law but they are not even enforced most of the time due to the bad will of doctors and hospitals). In 2007, abortion became once again the subject of intense public controversy, when a number of highly conservative parties put forward a proposal for a total ban on abortion. Although the Church in this instance officially defended the status-quo, it assumed a more interventionist role when at the end of the same year it sent a letter to the parliamentarians defending a ban on in-vitro fertilization procedures. Once again, reproductive rights acted as the catalyst in the battle on “moral values”, while women’s rights to bodily integrity and self-determination were pushed aside with impunity.

Opinion polls suggest that the relation of the Poles to the Catholic dogma tends to be rather weak, above all in what concerns sexual and reproductive rights. Nevertheless, 93% of the Poles declare themselves as Catholics and believers, and the ability of the Church to shift the political debate onto its own terrain (of “moral values”) and in its own terms remains strong. Politicians (even those on the left), in their struggle for electoral and public support, tend to avoid controversial topics that are regarded as socially divisive and express a general commitment to the Catholic dogma, thus downplaying existing gender discriminations. This explains in part why women’s groups, which have focused much of their energy on reproductive rights over the past two decades, encounter such stiff resistance. They are subjected to multiple pressures and their critique of gender discrimination is hardly audible. The negation of the right of abortion offers a good example of the fact that Polish democracy does not treat women as full citizens insofar as the control of their own bodies constitutes a central element of women’s autonomy, relating as well to civic, political and social rights. Although the European accession has put Poland in an awkward position on a range of issues, most notably those concerning equal rights, it has not yet brought forth any palpable change in the arena of reproductive rights.




  • Jacqueline Heinen
    Jacqueline Heinen is Professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. She has been director of Cahiers du Genre (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), president of the Conseil national des universités de France and member of the Group of experts in social sciences of the European Commission. Her main research fields are: gender and social policies in Western and Eastern Europe. She has directed a comparative research on gender and local democracy in seven European countries, issuing a “Guide pour l’intégration de l’égalité des sexes dans les politiques locales” (with F. Gaspard, eds), 2004. Her recent publications include “Gendering citizenship in Western Europe. New challenges for citizenship research in a cross-national context collective” (with R. Lister et alii), Policy Press 2007, and “Social Politics - International Studies in Gender, State and Society”, vol 13, nr 2 / 2006.
  • Stephane Portet
    Stephane Portet is a research fellow and lecturer at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France, currently delegated to Warsaw University. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology. His publications, mainly in French, focus on issues of employment, gender relations and social protection in Poland. They include several book chapters, journal articles and research reports, e.g. “Teenage Pregnancy in Poland: Between Laissez-Faire and Religious Backlash” (in Anne Daguerre and Corinne Nativel, Eds.: When Children Become Parents. Welfare States Responses to Teenage Pregnancy, Policy Press, 2006, 203-224).

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