Polish women confront Church and Union

Wednesday, June 26, 1991

By Sally Low

Not only the world's Jewish community were appalled by the pope's declaration in Poland in early June that abortion should be equated with the Nazi Holocaust. Repeated opinion polls have shown at least 60% of John Paul's compatriots, most of whom are Roman Catholics, believe abortion should remain legal.

A campaign to make abortion a crime punishable by imprisonment has sparked widespread public debate and has given impetus to some important women's organisations in Poland.

"What human institution has the right to legalise the killing of an innocent and defenceless human being?", said the pope at an open air mass in Radom, central Poland.

"It's scandalous what's going on in Parliament about the anti-abortion law", women employees at the PILMET factory in Wroclaw told Green Left in late May. "It is a denial of our human rights. If you want to have children, you have to have conditions to raise them. They are closing nurseries and child-care centres. We must work so what will we do with our children?"

Recognising the depth of public opinion in favour of abortion, some more liberal parliamentarians called for a referendum on the issue. The church has vigorously opposed that idea. The pope supported the claim that it is not possible to vote on a "moral" issue, although just such a thing was done in the Irish Republic in 1983. It seems his support for democracy in Eastern Europe knows some bounds.

Even among some devout Catholics, the tactic of forcing people to sign a petition in favour of criminalisation as they left mass must have caused resentment. As well, some sections of the church have shown the anti-abortion film Silent Scream to young school children, some of whom are reported to have run screaming from the classroom.

On May 17 the Sejm (lower house) was to decide whether to adopt the bill or to have a referendum. Several parties organised a compromise to postpone the vote, probably until after elections due in October.

For fundamentalist Catholic politicians, keen to have the bill adopted as an offering to the pope during his June visit, this was a serious setback. For the emerging Polish women's' organisations it was an important victory and, says Joanna Kasprzak, a left and women's activist from Warsaw, it has given them confidence to go on fighting. By running independent women's candidates and asking others to publicly state their views on abortion, she thinks, it

will be possible to make abortion a major election issue.

Women's Commission

Formed in June 1990, the Women's Commission of Solidarity is one organisation that has campaigned against the bill. In Wroclaw, members organised an unofficial referendum among all employees at seven factories in the region.

"They were asked just one question: Do you support the anti-abortion law or not?", explained Krystyna Politacha, a member of the national presidium of the Women's Commission. "In all these factories opposition to the bill was over 90% regardless of sex or union affiliation."

"My personal reasons for wanting a woman's organisation was to stop the marginalisation of women within the union", said Krystyna, who, a member of Solidarity since 1980 — her first union at her first job — resigned from the Solidarity commission in her workplace in 1990 because she no longer wanted to be part of "Walesa's bureaucracy".

When it was first formed and in the underground, women played an important role in Solidarity; but since the round table agreement, when many of the union's leaders moved into government, things have changed, she explained. "My colleagues started to speak of women's role as mother and wife in the home and claim that women do not want to be active in the union."

In fact, the "real problem is that, like all women in Eastern Europe, we face great pressure. And Solidarity's anti-women program has discouraged many women from activity because they see what has happened to their own trade union."

At first the commission's existence was opposed by the Solidarity leadership; it is still actively hampered by some officials. Despite this, it has members all over the country, including women who are not members of Solidarity and even members of other unions such as the OPZZ, the official trade union under the Stalinist regime.

On abortion, the Women's Commission has campaigned against the official policy of the union, which is for criminalisation. "In my opinion the whole story shows that Solidarity is in a very bad condition and the attack on women's rights particularly shows that it could well be a base for authoritarianism. The whole issue has divided Solidarity deeply", Krystyna said.

Other issues

"In Wroclaw the Women's Commission has been very active around the issue, but there has been strong political pressure, mainly from inside Solidarity, to stop our campaign."

In Krystyna's view there are many other issues which women should organise around. "Fundamentalists are also trying to ban contraceptives and divorce. Kazimierz Kapera, the deputy minister of health, last week said on TV that people shouldn't use contraceptives and that those who are afraid of AIDS are just sexual deviants. The National Catholics have tried to prevent drug stores from selling contraceptives."

Four of the most commonly used contraceptive pills have been taken off the market, and under a new law, all oral contraceptives will be sold at full price.

"One of the most important threats for women is unemployment. Even though it is illegal, there have been some examples of pregnant women and single mothers being fired. The union does nothing about it. No funds are made available to organise women. Also there is the liquidation of child-care and health services. In Solidarity there is a growing sentiment in favour of a family wage for men.

"Because of all this, the movement has started to grow. I think women will and must organise themselves. We have decided to try to have the national presidium of the Women's Commission moved to Wroclaw, where it is stronger. If that is blocked, we will leave the union and work outside it."

Democratic Union

Also in Wroclaw is the local branch of the Democratic Union of Women, a national organisation formed in July 1990. Alicya Lewandowska told Green Left that, as a new organisation still with few material resources, the DUW receives a lot of support, but is politically independent, from Social Democracy of the Polish Republic, formed out of the old Polish Communist Party (PUWP).

"They do not set our agenda like the PUWP did for the former official women's organisation. In the future we hope to be financially independent", she said. Membership of the DUW is open to all women. It counts some members of Solidarity among its ranks.

In Wroclaw, with an activist base of only about a dozen women, the DUW collected 8000 signatures on a petition against the proposed anti-abortion law. It has also set up a women's health centre that gives advice on contraception and sex education. In other parts of the country, it has organised a women's lawyers office and other services such as English classes for children. In the future, says Alicya, they may run in elections.

The DUW was one of several women's groups that helped to organise a demonstration outside the Sejm in Warsaw on May 16.

Other groups were the Polish Feminist Association, Pro Femina and the old official organisation, the Women's League.

While they differ on important points, including the membership or otherwise of men, these organisations "all start from the assumption that women are discriminated against. They are all in favour of equality for women in all sectors, in pay in working conditions and in the home", says Joanna Kasprzak.

"First and foremost, they are active around abortion but also other immediate social questions such as day care centres and nursery schools, wage equality and working conditions. As yet relations within the family, relations between men and women, sexuality (except in relation to contraception) and sexual preference are not widely discussed.

"Personal relations and women's role in society are more difficult to take up because of the anti-feminist offensive of the right, but also because of a reaction to the old Stalinist propaganda about women tractor drivers and shipyard workers etc. This is ridiculed by all the forces coming out of the movement against Stalinism, and in ridiculing it, they turn it into its opposite, an attack against women at work, an attack on the social status of women."

Around the abortion issue there have been several significant demonstrations this year, in Warsaw and other cities. One in Poznan was attacked by Christian thugs. As well as the women's organisations, these actions have been supported by some political parties and associations for freedom of conscience.

A victory for either side of the debate in Poland will be important for women in Czechoslovakia and Hungary where there have also been, as yet less determined, moves to remove or limit access to abortion.

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