On 22 October 2020, the highest court in Poland ruled that abortions violate the Polish constitution and should only be allowed to be carried out in extreme cases, such as rape. Nationally and internationally, the ruling was met with great outrage, leading to Poland’s biggest protests since the 1980’s. Especially women’s rights activists around the world strongly voiced their anger and pointed to the fears of thousands of women in Poland. Naturally, this event raises many questions. At first glance, we might think about questions like: Why do the court and the government insist on upholding this ruling? Is it ethically correct that governments can interfere with its citizens’ personal lives? Does this ruling amount to unfair treatment of women? While these questions are certainly valid, there is an even more complex web of intertwined factors that go beyond questions of inequality. Luckily, we have a very powerful tool at hand that we can utilise to understand this event with all its implications. The secret weapon is Feminism.
Feminism is to be understood as a way of thinking rather than a certain set of predefined contents. Adopting a feminist lens enables us to discover power relations and trace them all the way back to their origins. In the Polish example, we could identify a power imbalance between the two genders, based on the recent court ruling on abortions. But where does this come from? It would be wrong to automatically assume that Poland’s judiciary intentionally tries to undermine women by limiting their personal freedoms. Looking at the demographics of Poland, we can see that over 90% are Christians, while over 60% of those are strong believers, according to a 2015 census. It is, therefore, neither surprising nor bad that the government reflects the population in this regard; ultimately, that is what democratic systems were invented for. However, such high levels of religious homogeneity can put a country in front of structurally difficult challenges. Just as ethnically homogeneous countries are prone to nationalism, highly religious countries are prone to radicalisation. This often translates into a strong aversion against other religions and less strict people from their own religion. The reason for this is that after a certain level of intensity of the belief, it is not merely enough to strictly live according to the beliefs, but a necessity to legitimise this strict behaviour arises. One way to do that is to group all other religions under one umbrella and clearly position oneself far away from this group. By doing so, the person tries to create a special place for her own beliefs, in order to gain a moral high ground. Eventually, this dynamic will end in radicalisation. We can see that in Poland, which constantly makes headlines with its racist political course, nepotism and inward-looking foreign policy.
How does that all relate to abortion rights? As we can see, Poland is in a precarious situation in which a radicalised population elected a radical government. In a mutual reinforcement of their beliefs, Poland is in a strong process of “othering” other countries; in other words, Poland tries to separate themselves from other countries by adopting more radical policies, in an attempt to gain a moral high ground and legitimise its Christist rule. Mainly, the country resists any kind of societal innovation, because it sees it as a challenge to Christian values. Many Christists believe that abortion violates one of the Ten Commandments: the prohibition to kill. Here, abortion is strictly understood as murder. Unfortunately, these people completely disregard the biological aspects of abortions – let alone the individual circumstances of the affected women. A binary and un-nuanced stance is adopted, which also part of the greater approach of “othering” through religion: “There are only us and the others”.
Hence, it is difficult to argue that the abortion laws in Poland primarily aim at undermining the role of women per se. Rather the law is a result of a radicalised political system, which reflects a radicalised population that tries to distance themselves. With the help of our feminist lens, this also leads us to think about the role of women in Christianity and its organised institution in form of the Church. If we go beyond this particular religion and look at the characteristics of other organised beliefs, we can also extend the question to: “Do religions, in general, discriminate against women?”. If the answer to that is “yes”, we can continue to ask questions, in order to dig deeper to the core of the problem: “Do strongly organised religions discriminate more against women than loosely organised religions?”. If the answer is “yes”, we should ask: “Are religions mainly organised by men?”. If the answer is, again, “yes”, then we have a strong reason to question the validity of the content of the particular religion we are examining. The reason for this is simple: first, all organisms are equal – hierarchy is a social invention. Second, if a religious construct is mainly upheld by men (e.g. main actors in the myths are men, the prophets are exclusively men, the religious organisations are managed by men etc.), it is unlikely that this religion’s claims are true. Accordingly, rather than being true, the examined religion serves an earthly purpose or interest. Finally, we can then ask the last question in this chain of logic: “Were religions invented by men to oppress women?”