Black Protest in Warsaw, Poland

Anthropology: Feminism in Poland Relative to Restrictive Abortion Laws and Reproductive Rights

For many years, Polish women have been protesting restrictive abortion laws, limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and care, inadequate services and support in the face of violence, and perpetuation of traditional and prescribed gender roles.

Waves of Feminism in Poland

During the 19th century, Poland experienced three waves of feminism. The first wave came in 1819 when Klementyna z Tańskich Hoffmanowa advocated the necessity of education for women in her text “Pamiątka po dobrej matce” (Remembrance of a Good Mother).

Narcyza Żmichowska
Narcyza Żmichowska, Polish writer and precursor of feminism in Poland (

The second, stronger wave, came in 1843. During this time, the first Polish female philosopher, Eleonora Zimięcka wrote, “Myśli o wychowaniu kobiet” (Suggestions for Women’s Education), in which she postulated that the aim of women’s education should be forming their human nature and then – femininity. Meanwhile, Narcyza Żmichowska, who is considered the first Polish feminist, wrote articles advocating for women’s emancipation and education for women.

The third and strongest wave of feminism came to Poland after 1870. During this time, it was predominantly men who advocated for the feminist cause. For instance, Edward Prądzyński, who wrote “O prawach kobiety” (On Women’s Rights) and supported full equality of the sexes in every domain.

1927, woman agitating before Warsaw City Council elections
1927, woman agitating before Warsaw City Council elections (

Around the 1900s, another (fourth) wave of feminism reached Poland. Female authors, such as Konopnicka, Orzeszkowa, and Nałkowska, were active in the Polish women’s movement. Later on, during the interwar period (the 1920s and 1930s), Article 96 of the Polish constitution of 1921 provided that all citizens were equal under the law. However, it did not apply to married women. This brought the fifth wave of feminism. During the 1920s, there was a rise in radical feminism, with women, such as Irena Krzywicka, Maria Morozowicz-Szczepakowska, and Tadeusz Żeleński arguing for strict equality of the sexes and often protesting against the interference of the Roman Catholic Church into the intimate lives of Poles. In 1932, marital rape became illegal in Poland. However, with the Second World War, all Polish feminists were silenced.

After World War II, under communist rule, Poland experienced the sixth wave of feminism. This time was characterized by many feminists advocating for equality of the sexes. Women started to participate in industrial production, agriculture, and politics, and Poland had the first female government minister in the world. However, many feminist texts produced in the 1950s and afterward were controlled and generated by the Communist state in Poland.

History of Abortion

Abortion has existed since ancient times. The practice of abortion is to end a pregnancy by removing or expulsing an embryo or fetus. The earliest records of abortion date back to 2700 BC in China and 1550 in Egypt. Early texts that mention abortion are mostly entitled to concern about male property rights, preservation of social order, and the duty to produce fit people for the state or community. Women who procured an abortion against their husband’s wishes received the harshest penalty. Abortion was also mentioned in religious texts, which often contained severe condemnations of abortion. Further restrictions on the practice of abortion were placed by many Western countries in the 20th century.

Abortion Laws in Europe

Abortion laws vary between countries and have changed over time. In some countries, abortion is free and available on request, others maintain regulations or restrictions in relation to abortions, and others strictly prohibit it in all circumstances. Despite a wide variation in the restrictions under which it is permitted, abortion is legal in most European countries. The exceptions are the mini-state of Malta, the micro-states of Vatican City, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra, and the large state of Poland, where abortion is illegal or severely restricted.

  • Andorra, Malta, and San Marino do not allow abortion at all.
  • Liechtenstein allows it only when a woman’s life or health is at risk or the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault.
  • Monaco and Poland allow it only when a woman’s life or health is at risk, the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault, or involves a severe fetal anomaly.

In total, 41 European countries allow abortion on a woman’s request or on broad social grounds. Meanwhile, 6 European countries do not allow this. In the European Union, countries that allow abortion on request are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. Finland and the United Kingdom allow abortion on broad social grounds.

Abortion Laws In Poland

Although formally, abortion was legalized in Poland almost 20 years earlier than the United States and France, equality of sexes was granted, sexual education was introduced into schools, and contraceptives were legal and subsidized by the state. In reality, none of this was actually realized and any discussion of this issue was forbidden.

After the fall of communism, Poland experienced the seventh wave of feminism. In the early 1990s, the government introduced a ban on abortions, and Polish feminists changed their strategies, focusing more on the ‘pro-choice’ movement, and arguing for ‘lesser evil’ and ‘planned parenthood’. This, however, has been proved to be ineffective.

Black Protest in Warsaw, Poland
Black Protest against Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal that imposes a near-total ban on abortion, Warsaw, Poland (

Today, Poland is still one of the countries with the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. In 2016, the government proposed a total ban on abortion and initiated the Black Protest, during which masses of Poles protested about women’s rights. Kaja Godek – a radical anti-abortion activist, wrote on Facebook: “An unborn child is a separate person, which has its own body and its own rights. A child must not be deprived of the fundamental right of every human being — the right to life”.

The feminist movement in Poland has been specific and slow to develop, despite the seemingly favorable conditions for the development of feminism. Even today, feminism has negative connotations in many people’s minds, in Poland. The main focus of the movement is the right to abortion, which in any country that is significantly influenced by the Catholic Church is questioned and simply impossible. In Poland, the issue of abortion is emphasized more than the fight for equal wages, the fight against sexual discrimination, or the fight against the rape culture. The government and the church in Poland have been outspoken in censuring the concepts of “gender” and “genderism”, and labeling the promotion of equality as “gender ideology”. Any attempt to discuss gender equality is demonized as driving hypersexuality, homosexuality, feminism, transgenderism, and an assault on traditional ideas of marriage and family.

Abortion in Poland is only allowed if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. In January 2021, this controversial near-total ban on abortion in Poland has taken effect, despite the nationwide protests against it. At the beginning of this year, the Constitutional Court found that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. In 2019, 98% of abortions were carried out on the grounds of severe abnormalities. This means that the ruling effectively banned the vast majority of pregnancy terminations.

Pro-Life Movement in Poland

Pro-Life Protests in Poland

The Pro-Life movement (also known as the anti-abortion movement) is involved in the abortion debate and advocates against the practice and its legality. Ewa Kowalewska, the chairwoman of the Forum of Polish Women, and a member of the pro-life organization “Human Life International”, said that in Poland, pro-life organizations help single mothers and their children to be able to fulfill their roles (as mothers) and comprehensive education. According to Kowalewska, Polish anti-abortion activists are not “anti”,  but “pro” – pro-life, pro-traditions, and strong families, as well as positive, and rational upbringing, that encourages “pro-life attitudes”. The biggest “March for Life” in Poland, takes place every year in the city of Szczecin.

Pro-life organizations suggest that the opposite side of the debate is “anti-choice” and “anti-life”. In Poland, pro-life activists and the government do not even open up for a discussion about abortion, because anyone who is for abortion is labeled a “murderer of the unborn”. The labels have been so radicalized that any discussion about abortion is impossible.

Pro-life movements have been criticized for being more interested in the life of a fetus, than the life of a woman in an unplanned pregnancy, or the well-being of children after they are born. In addition to this, many people who consider themselves ‘pro-life’ are pro-death penalty, and against the regulations concerning children’s rights.

Statistical Data

Statistic on legal abortion in Poland

In 2019, the number of legal abortions in Poland amounted to 1,110. This is an increase of nearly 3.2%, the vast majority of which was due to prenatal examinations, or other medical reasons indicating a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease. In some of those cases, an abortion was performed because the pregnancy threatened the life or health of the mother. 3 cases were a result of a criminal act (such as rape or incest).

Abortion Rates per 1,000 women aged 15-49 in Europe

The abortion rate is the number of reported legal abortions per 1,000 women between 14 and 49 years of age. Abortion rates in Europe vary significantly across countries. However, Poland has the lowest abortion rate, with 0.1. This is because abortion access in Poland is much more restricted than in other countries, and anyone who carries out an illegal abortion can face up to 3 years in prison.

The Impact on Women

As a result of the restrictive abortion law in Poland, many Polish women are forced to continue pregnancies against their will. One of the thousands of examples of this is a woman who wanted a child but learned when she was 13 weeks pregnant that, due to a congenital defect, her baby would die within a few hours of birth – if not earlier. She was told to wait until she miscarried.

Some women decide to go abroad to have an abortion carried out, while others have abortions in secret at home. Abortion Without Borders is an initiative founded in 2019 which supports women in unintended pregnancies in Poland and abroad. In the first six months after the Polish Constitutional Court ruling, the initiative is said to have helped a total of 17,000 women access abortion, either at home, through using pills, or abroad, in clinics. Compared to 2019, when 5,000 women turned to the group for help, this is a significant increase.

Another group providing help with abortion in Poland is Women Help Women. They provide underground postal access to abortion pills, and claim to have helped 10,000 people, and responded to over 46,000 messages from Poland.

Ciocia Czesia activists hold up the red lightning bolt, the symbol of Poland’s pro-choice marches
Ciocia Czesia activists hold up the red lightning bolt, the symbol of Poland’s pro-choice marches (

Ciocia Czesia (Auntie Czech) is another group that was set up in 2020 to help Polish women seek abortion in the neighboring Czech Republic. The group got in contact with similar collectives in Berlin and Vienna. About 215 women have contacted Ciocia Czesia so far to gain legal and practical information in Polish and access Polish-speaking medical staff.

According to Irene Donadio, senior lead of strategy and partnership at the International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network (IPPF-EN), the restrictions considering the right to abortion in Poland have “been devastating for women because it is clearly an oppressive system that has developed against their health and their lives“.

Challenges Due to COVID-19

Polish women seeking to terminate their pregnancies also go to other countries, such as Germany, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and the UK. However, the worldwide pandemic and traveling restrictions are yet another obstacle faced by Polish women seeking to carry out an abortion abroad.  Covid testing and visa requirements mean higher costs for support groups, and due to social distancing, activists from initiatives such as Ciocia Czesia are not able to accompany the women to the clinics, so their support was provided online-only.

Final Thoughts

The issue of abortion in Poland is interesting for Social Scientists, as, on one hand, there is a new feminist movement, such as the “black umbrellas” that developed as a response to the PiS (Law and Justice Party) parliament’s attempts to take away the remnants of women’s reproductive rights. On the other hand, there is the ruling party, influenced by the Catholic Church. The conservative media are influenced by the leadership and play an important role in shaping the public’s views and attitudes towards abortion. All this creates a picture of conflicting views and a polarization of positions.

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