As Poland debates the most restrictive abortion law in Europe, campaigners have invoked genocide – but pro-choice Poles too have imported imagery from the US
Photo: People demonstrate against the Polish government’s plans of tightening the abortion law in Kraków on 3 April. The signs read: ‘I’m giving a birth from love not from being forced’ and ‘My womb does not belong to homeland.’ Photograph: Łukasz Kamiński/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Daniel A Gross
Saturday 9 April 2016 10.00 BST
Last modified on Saturday 9 April 2016 16.10 BST
Six years ago, Polish activists made international headlines when they compared abortion to genocide. In the city of Poznań, posters depicting Adolf Hitler appeared next to graphic images of foetuses.
This month, those images have resurfaced, as Polish pro-life activists push for a complete ban on abortion – a move that would make Poland’s policies the most restrictive in Europe.
For many Americans, graphic abortion imagery seems familiar. In Poland, pro-life posters are often blood-red and blown up to several feet tall. Many include coins to illustrate scale.
But strangely, those coins are not euros or Polish złoty – they are American dimes and quarters.
On both sides of Poland’s abortion debate, activists have imported tactics and imagery from the United States. Today, with Poland’s abortion policies at their most contentious in 23 years, the US example is powerfully influencing reproductive rights in Europe.
This week, as news of the proposed abortion ban spread through Poland, thousands of pro-choice protesters gathered in more than a dozen cities and towns. When Catholic leaders read a statement in favour of the ban during Sunday services, many women walked out of church, according to video released by Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.
Poland’s abortion debate is national, but its symbols are distinctly international. Mariusz Dzierżawski, perhaps the best-known anti-abortion activist in Poland, said in an interview that his use of graphic images comes from the United States.
“We did not create these tactics,” said Dzierżawski, whose organisation Stop Abortion planned the 2010 demonstrations in Poznań, and is behind the current movement for a complete ban. Dzierżawski said his “inspiration” is Gregg Cunningham, an American anti-abortion activist who visited Poland in 2004.
Dzierżawski added that his images came directly from Cunningham’s organisation, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, whose website links to 15 “international affiliates” in Europe, Africa and North America. The website – which also takes credit for the comparison between abortion and genocide – attracted media attention in 2015, when its graphic videos were described in a debate by then presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina.
“We exchanged emails almost every day,” said Dzierżawski. “I was able to learn what was going on in the States. And I kept him up to date as to what we were up to in Poland.” The two men are still in regular contact, Dzierżawski said. Cunningham did not respond to requests for comment.
The transfer of imagery and symbolism is not confined to anti-abortion activism.
A woman hangs up hangers, symbolizing illegal abortion, in Warsaw earlier this month. ‘I don’t think women in Poland ever used hangers,’ said one activist.
Photo: A woman hangs up hangers, symbolizing illegal abortion, in Warsaw earlier this month. ‘I don’t think women in Poland ever used hangers,’ said one activist. Photograph: Janek Skarzyński/AFP/Getty Images
“There’s another very interesting American reference – coat hangers,” said activist and researcher Agata Chełstowska.
During the recent protests in Warsaw, pro-choice activists thrust coat hangers into the air, in reference to the dangers of illegal abortion, and left the hangers dangling from trees in front of the parliament building.
“The thing is, I don’t think women in Poland ever used hangers. I think that’s strictly American,” said Chełstowska.
In two key respects, the abortion debate differs between the US and Poland. First, abortion was widely accessible for nearly four decades in Poland, when the country was under communist rule. Second, Catholic leaders have strongly influenced national politics since the 1991 transition to democracy.
In 1993, the church helped mobilise support the country’s current abortion restrictions. Polish women can apply for abortion only in cases of rape, incest and serious health risks to the mother or child.
These restrictions can be psychological, as well as legal. Maria Pawłowska, a lecturer in gender studies and a recent mother, remembered worrying that she couldn’t trust her doctor’s advice. “This is the awful reality we live in now,” she said. When Pawłowska was seven months pregnant, she read about a Polish doctor who told a pregnant woman that several scans showed a healthy foetus. The baby was born with serious deformities.
Recent contacts with US activists are not the first time US campaigns have touched the abortion debate in Poland. In the early 1990s, the American feminist Ann Snitow brought abortion technology to Poland. In 1996, the anti-abortion activist Bernard Nathanson – whose book influenced Dzierżawski, and whose film The Silent Scream was shown in Polish schools – gave a speech to Catholic bishops in Warsaw. He declared: “May this great nation not follow in the bloody footsteps of America.”
Similarly, in 2012, Americans played a major role in anti-abortion campaigns in Ireland, which is the only European country that restricts abortion as tightly as Poland.
A supporter of the SOS Defense of Unborn Life Foundation kisses a rosary while demonstrating against abortion in Warsaw last month.
Photo: A supporter of the SOS Defense of Unborn Life Foundation kisses a rosary while demonstrating against abortion in Warsaw last month. Photograph: Tomasz Gzell/AFP/Getty Images
If the proposed ban makes it to a parliamentary vote, “there is a big chance it will pass,” said Krystyna Kacpura, who directs Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning. For that to happen, anti-abortion activists like Dzierżawski will need to gather 100,000 signatures, a modest number in a country of 38 million.
Still, the recent wave of protests seems to be having an impact. The Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, who last week declared her support for the ban, seemed to backpedal on Monday when she suggested her comments were personal rather than political.
Some pro-choice activists even think the proposed ban could backfire. “I know many activists that see this as an opportunity to push for liberalisation,” Chełstowska said. “We’ve waited 20 years for something like this to happen,” said Kacpura. “There is potential for change.”
When asked if she thought her country would ultimately ban abortion, Chełstowska said: “For the first time, I really don’t know.”
Additional reporting by Krzysztof Ignaciuk in Berlin