“This harmful intervention”: discourses about abortion in state-socialist Poland

By Agata Ignaciuk


Today, access to abortion in Poland is regulated by an act commonly referred to as the Anti-Abortion Law. Introduced in 1993, this sets forth a narrow range of circumstances in which a pregnancy can legally be terminated. These include endangerment of the woman’s life or physical health, severe foetal malformations and pregnancies resulting from a criminal act, such as rape or incest. This legislation, providing Poland with some of the most restrictive abortion policies in Europe, was drafted and introduced during the early days of the Polish democratic transition. It successfully drove abortions – legal during state socialism – underground.

The Anti-Abortion Law has continually been presented as a “compromise”: a middle point between the liberal abortion regulation of the state socialist period, and the total prohibition put forward by the hierarchy of the Polish Catholic Church, who played a crucial political role during the democratic transition. While possible revisions of the law – both to further liberalization and to increase restrictions – were debated throughout the 1990s and 2000s, all attempts to change the law have ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Agnieszka Graff, who discussed some of these debates in one of the classic texts of Polish feminism, The world without women [Świat bez kobiet] (2001), argued that Polish pro-choicers “lost the war on language”[1] during the public debates on abortion. According to Graff these were confined to terms proposed by the Polish Catholic Church, with foetuses defined as unborn children and pregnant woman as “mothers”. Thus, little space was left to develop a language of “rights” in relation to abortion, contraception and sex education.

bulski poradnik okladki

The fact the “war on language” was so easily lost was not only due to the limited impact of the Polish feminist movement on state policies during the 1990s. I believe the fact that abortion was not conceptualized as a “reproductive right”, even when it was legal and common during the state socialist period, was also highly significant.

Legalized for women in “difficult life circumstances” in 1956 and available practically on demand since 1959, abortion had become an important birth control resource in Poland throughout the state-socialist period, with an estimate of between 300.000 and 500.000 abortions performed annually in public hospitals and private gynaecological surgeries. As historian Małgorzata Fidelis (2010) has pointed out, the “language of reproduction rights entered neither legal documents nor social commentary” surrounding the 1956 Polish abortion law[2]. Abortion was frequently used as a back-up method for cycle-observation based contraception and coitus interruptus, the contraceptive practices most favoured by Polish women throughout the state socialist period.

During the 1960s and 1970s, abortion legislation was being revised and liberalized in many Western countries, with feminist movements successfully re-conceptualising access to abortion as a woman’s right. At the same time, to interrupt an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy was a relatively normalized experience for many Polish women.

However, more than a “right”, abortion was commonly represented by medical professionals as a “necessary evil”: a potentially dangerous medical intervention that should be avoided at all cost. Such a depiction of abortion was circulated in publications about contraception and family planning aimed at the general public, edited under the auspices of the Polish Society for Conscious Motherhood, an organization established in 1957 to provide contraceptive advice and methods. Between 1957 and 1971, the Society printed more than 9 million books and booklets on birth control, over half of which were distributed free of charge. Male and female doctors –reputable figures within Polish gynaecology–, who acted as experts for these publications, warned women against using abortion as a birth control method. Gynaecologist Jadwiga Beaupre, one of the Society’s most prolific authors during the late 1950s, wrote in the second edition to a booklet How to prevent pregnancy [Jak zapobiegać ciąży] (1959):

“It must be remembered once and for all, that terminating pregnancy is evil. And terminating the first pregnancy is very reckless on the woman’s side, and a crime on the doctor’s side, as he should have advised her against it” (p. 26)

Jan Lesiński, director of the Clinic of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Mother and Child Institute in Warsaw, used a similar argument in a contemporary  book, We are about to get married [Przed nami małżeństwo] (1959):

“Abortion is harmful and potentially dangerous; even it is performed by a doctor. Thus, every abortion is evil, even if sometimes it is a necessary evil” (p. 7).

Other gynaecologists, like Tadeusz Bulski and Michalina Wisłocka, used similar lines of reasoning in family planning guidebooks published in the 1960s. All these authors agreed that while abortion in general was to be regarded as a “necessary evil”, abortion of the first pregnancy or repeated abortions were even more dreadful, as these were considered to easily cause sterility.

Medical arguments positioning abortion as dangerous were also used in The Catholic and family planning [Katolik a planowanie rodziny], a book aimed at priests and couples for use during Catholic marriage preparation courses. In the chapter on “conscious motherhood” in the first edition of the book from 1964, abortion was represented as both an ethical and a medical problem:

“The Church, as we know, is opposed to interrupting a pregnancy as a birth control method. However, neither medicine nor lay ethics approve of abortion, considering it brutal and harmful for a woman’s health and psyche. Medicine and ethics consider abortion a necessary evil. The Church considers it an inacceptable evil” (p. 14)

During the 1970s, while abortion continued to be represented as a potential health risk, new kinds of arguments entered the discourse. Editions of The Catholic and family planning in this decade added an increasingly complex and elaborate conceptualization of foetal personhood, framing abortion as “murder” and setting the stage for the restriction of debate to anti-choice terms in the 1990s:

“The first day after the ovum is joined with the spermatozoid, the human body as tiny as a head of a pin has a determined sex, eye, skin and hair colour, as well as some features of character… (…) During the 4th month [of pregnancy] the baby weighs half of what it will weigh at birth” (p. 32),

This can be read in the chapter on “conscious motherhood” in the 1974 edition.

While during the 1970s this and other books on family planning published in Poland for a Catholic public continued to condemn abortion through the rhetoric of medical complications and personification of the foetus, general books on contraception written by doctors continued to focus on the health risks of abortions, and emphasize the availability of new contraceptive methods, namely IUDs and the pill, that became more available in Poland between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Gynaecologist, Barbara Trębicka-Kwiatkowska, wrote in the introduction to a guidebook entitled To prevent or to interrupt pregnancy [Zapobieganie czy przerywanie ciąży] (1971):

“I don’t want to scare or forbid. I want to convince [women] that these interventions should be avoided, for the sake of one’s health and reproductive capacity. Artificial interruption of pregnancy should be a last resource, never a contraceptive method. Thanks to the modern medicine there are more contraceptive options so that every women, obviously advised by her doctor, can use a convenient method that will keep her healthy, give her peace regarding the sexual relations and enable her to plan her family” (p. 3).

Some women gynaecologist during this decade did defend abortion as a woman’s decision, but it was still not conceptualized as a “right”. Krystyna Jordan, in her book Contemporary contraception [Antykoncepcja współczesna] first published in 1973, was “surprised” that women continued to use abortions despite the new contraceptive methods, but supported the fact that abortion was legal:

“It’s incomprehensible that despite many years of contraceptive propaganda (…) and the introduction of better methods (…) contraception is not becoming more popular. Many people in Poland think that limiting births through abortion is primitive and dangerous. But it is the right thing that the women can decide about having –or not, the child” (p. 10).

Another gynaecologist, Michalina Wisłocka, in a best-selling manual of sexuality The art of love [Sztuka kochania], first published in 1978, also declared the woman herself to be the only person entitled to decide, regardless of any pressure she might receive from her partner.

To conclude, even during most of the state-socialist period when abortion was legal, it was never situated within the “reproductive rights” framework proposed by Western feminism. In state-socialist Poland abortion was condemned as an intervention which posed a serious threat to a woman’s health, and by the 1970s, Catholic birth control manuals were presenting abortion as a “crime” against the foetus: a foetus which had started to become a “child”.

With this brief sketch of the ways abortion was represented in Polish family planning manuals during the 1960s and 1970s, I hope to have illuminated the historical roots of the current abortion debates in Poland, and the difficulties contemporary Polish feminists encounter when promoting the idea of “a right to abortion”.


This post is based on my recently published article in Polish: “Ten szkodliwy zabieg”. Dyskursy na temat aborcji w publikacjach Towarzystwa Świadomego Macierzyństwa/Towarzystwa Planowania Rodziny (1956-1980). Zeszyty Etnologii Wrocławskiej 1(20) (2014): 75-97.

[1] Agnieszka Graff, Świat bez kobiet (Warszawa: W. A. B., 2001)

[2] Małgorzata Fidelis, Fidelis, “Women Astray. Debating Sexuality and Reproduction during the Thaw,” in Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 170-202 (190).