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Catholicism and White Supremacy: How These Unlikely Allies Set the Stage for Poland’s Staunch Abortion Ban

A red background lies behind Polish women protesting anti-abortion laws.
Image: red background lies behind Polish women protesting anti-abortion laws.

On Wednesday, January 27, the Polish government enacted a near-total ban on abortion with exceptions only for fetal abnormalities, rape, incest, and mortal risk to the mother. This attack on reproductive freedom is in keeping with the right-wing Law and Justice Party’s broader conservative social agenda, which claims to defend family values, Catholicism, and the Polish national identity. In majority Catholic nations such as Poland, there is a strong and historic link between nationalist revivals and the loss of women’s reproductive rights. In the same vein, the Law and Justice Party’s white supremacist rhetoric and xenophobic policies echo popular enthonationalist objections to abortion touted by far right extremists around the world. The rise of right wing populism in Poland exists at the intersection between these two phenomena, creating the perfect storm for a backsliding in women’s rights and reproductive freedoms. Poland’s ban on abortion illuminates the unlikely alliance between Catholicism and white supremacy, and how the issue of abortion has brought these two strange bed fellows together into a single political coalition.

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) won joint control of parliament and the presidency for the first time in nearly a decade. PiS was founded in 2001 as an economically moderate party that sought to emphasize traditional Christian values. However, throughout the next decade, the party’s coalition expanded rightward, ultimately bringing populism and nationalism to the core of PiS’s agenda. Since winning election, the party has enacted several progressive economic reforms, while promoting anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and anti-LGBTQ+ positions

Historically, nationalist movements tend to emphasize traditional cultural values in order to create a unified national identity. In the case of Poland, nationalism in the historically Catholic nation is intrinsically linked with the Catholic Church. Not only do nine in ten Polish citizens currently identify as Catholic, but during Poland’s occupation by the Soviet Union, the Catholic Church was widely regarded as a symbol of Polish resistance against their secular oppressors. 

Catholic clergyman were also some of the nation’s greatest anti-communist dissentors. Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Catholic priest who spoke out against Soviet rule in his sermons, was murdered by the Soviet Secret Police in 1984. Popiełuszko’s tragic death was just one of many that solidified the bond between Catholic leadership and the anti-communist resistance in the minds of many Poles. 

Today’s nationalist movement is no different. According to journalist Gloria Trifonova “Populism hinges upon legitimation through myths about the nation–to be Polish is equated to being Catholic. Thus, the dichotomy of the ‘people,’majority Polish Catholics, versus the ‘others,’ mainly marginalised groups, becomes the raison d’etre for policy making. Women, who refuse to adhere to Catholic values, simply fall into the latter group.”  

“Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to a survey conducted by the CBOS organization, in 1992, 71% of Poles supported abortions in the case of fetal defects compared to just 53% today. The same survey found that while 80% of Polish citizens supported abortions in the case of rape or incest three decades ago, only 73% of Poles do today. The Church’s staunch opposition to abortion in combination with Catholicism’s signifcance to the Polish identity has led to a positive correlation between the rise of nationalism and the rise of anti-choice opinions in Poland. 

A similar phenomenon occurred during the Irish Home Rule Movement in the early twentieth century. While the campaigns for Irish independence and female suffrage occurred almost simultaneously, it became evident that the two movements were ultimately incompatible. While Irish suffragists sought to redefine Irish womanhood, the nationalist cause re-emphasized traditional aspects of Irish society, including the Catholic Church’s moral expectations for female sexuality and traditional gender roles. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, nationalists sought to distinguish Ireland as distinctively Catholic in contrast to their British neighbors, and restricted women’s freedoms as a result. Specifically, The Juries Act of 1927 banned women from sitting on juries and the Civil Service Regulation Bill of 1925, as well as the Marriage Bar of 1932, restricted married women’s ability to find jobs outside of the home. Almost a century later, these same Catholic social values are resurgent in Poland, and women’s reproductive freedoms are being threatened as a result. In both of these cases, the rise of nationalism demanded the concession of individual liberties in order to serve the greater good–to sacrifice the rights of women in order to preserve the traditional culture and what it symbolized for the nation as a whole. 

While the Catholic Church has significant influence over PiS’s political positions, Catholics are not the only voting bloc in the Law and Justice Party’s coalition that seek an end to abortion. Over the past decade, the party has adopted an increasingly anti-immigrantion stance. In 2015, Poland refused to participate in the EU’s migrant relocation programs for Syrian refugees, arguing that an influx of Muslim immigrants would threaten Poland’s cultural homogenity. Despite Poland’s shrinking workforce, PiS has maintained its anti immigrant position, particularly for nonwhite and/or nonchristian migrants. In a leaked policy document from 2019, the Polish government even outlined plans to deliberately prioritize Christian migration over all other religions and to install compulsory assimilation courses for new arrivals. The prioritization of white and/or Christian immigrants highlights PiS’s desire to preserve Poland’s ethnic homogeneity. It is this obsession with ethnic purity that prompts many white supremecists to staunchly oppose abortion access, as they fear that the declining white birth rate won’t be able to compete with that of nonnative populations. 

In 2017, 60,000 nationalist extremists marched on Polish independence day. The crowd could be heard chanting “Pure Poland, white Poland” and “Refugees, get out.” This surge in ethno nationalism has clear ties to the xenophobic conspiracy theory commonly referred to as “The Great Replacement.” 

Commonly attributed to French writer Renaud Camus, the Great Replacement theory argues that declining birth rates amongst the white population in combination with an influx of nonwhite immigration will ultimately lead to the extinction of the white race. Despite its French origins, this conspiracy has taken hold in regions throughout the world. It was even cited in the manifesto of Patrick Crucius, the 21 year old gunman who shot and killed 23 people in a Walmart located in El Paso, Texas in 2019. 

“If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization,” said American white nationalist Steve King. Peddlers of the Great Replacement theory around the world are devoted to curbing abortion access in majority white nations in order to increase white birth rates, and Poland is no different. 

The rise of far right nationalism under PiS has precipitated resurgences in both traditional Catholic social values and white supremecist ideology aimed at preserving Poland’s ethnic purity. Given the staunch anti abortion position of these two ascendent ideologies, Poland’s fall to the hands of anti choicers was seemingly only a matter of time. Nonetheless, the international Catholic church, particularly since the inauguration of Pope Francis I, has taken an explicitly pro immigration stance. In light of this inconsistency, it appears that when PiS is forced to choose between these two ideologies, white supremacy takes precedence over their Catholic faith, suggesting that Poland’s Catholic nationalism may simply be a cover for its more sinister white nationalist counterpart. 

Graphic: Jingyu Feng

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