Through Poland´s backlash on women’s rights and its increased harassment on the LGBT population, the government have gone to war on European values. Over the past two years, Prawo i Sprawiedlliwość (PiS) – has presented itself as the protector of traditional Polish values and portrayed its political opponents as those who are undermining the Polish way of life. The government’s strategy goes beyond the damage already done by the court’s decisions around women’s rights; what we are witnessing is an escalating culture war that plays on people’s fears and sense of identity.
The general atmosphere in Poland has changed drastically over the past years in terms of perception of LGBT. Some state officials praise intolerance by announcing more and more new areas of the country “free from LGBT”. The number of “LGBT-free” areas is now almost at 100, with a total area larger than Hungary. As a result, Poland has the highest rate of hate-motivated physical or sexual attacks against LGBT people among the EU Member States.
Poland’s treatment of LGBT has already led to major international condemnation. European commission president Ursula von der Leyen hence criticised Poland’s lack of LGBT rights in her first state of union speech. She declared that “LGBT-free zones” are “humanity-free zones” that have no place in the European Union, and told the MEPs that “Being yourself is not your ideology, it’s your identity”.
The EU Parliament has followed the case, and reports that the mental health and physical safety of LGBT people is at risk due to the government’s continued attacks on activists and organizations. MPs describes a reality where attacks on the LGBT community in Poland – including growing hate speech from the public, elected officials and the media – is becoming increasingly common. They further asked Poland to condemn LGBT discrimination and to lift the bans on LGBT rights, while instructing the European Commission to ensure that EU funds are not used for discriminatory purposes.
The oppression the Polish LGBT- community face on a daily basis cannot be accepted by European citizens, as an attack on their fundamental rights is an attack on our values, our democracy, as well as what we have fought for and achieved in recent decades.
Fortunately, many are now fighting back against the Polish government´s attacks on European values. Following a Constitutional Court decision to impose new restrictions on Polish women’s access to abortion, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest. The latest restrictions on abortion – which are some of the most restrictive in Europe – will greatly undermine women’s autonomy, and are therefore strongly opposed.
The latest restrictions will challenge the 1993 Act, which allowed abortions in cases where there is a high probability of a “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life”. The new restrictions have banned abortion in all cases except rape, incest and where the mother’s life is in imminent danger. However – due to a slow process – the new law removes almost all possibilities for abortion in practice. It is further worth noting that just 1,000 abortions were legally permitted in Poland last year, and that somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 Polish women have to travel abroad to access abortion services every year. This is in other words not about protecting life – it is about denying women the healthcare that they need and deserve in their country.
Despite Poland being a Catholic country, opinion polls show that voters are unhappy with the new laws. But far from backing down, Poland’s ruling party is setting itself up to bask in the glow of public backlash. Even if the strength of the outrage may have taken them by surprise, the party knows that a war against women will pay off in the realm of domestic politics. As PiS consequently thrives on fear and scapegoats; the current protests are a perfect opportunity to exploit identity-based concerns and convince supporters of the importance of protecting so-called traditional values. PiS party chief and Poland’s de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński demonstrates this when he claimed that the country is in the midst of a “cultural civil war”, where he urged the people to defend the church “at all costs” agents the liberal values, or Poland would be “destroyed.”
By framing the struggle as one that focuses on the Church, the PiS presents the demonstrations as an assault on the foundation of Polish society and, by extension, an attack on the people. In doing so, PiS ignores the fact that the demonstrations are mostly taking place in front of the public institutions PiS controls, not the churches. Poland’s cultural civil war is hence first and foremost between the government, and the basic rights of its population.
Despite Poland´s recent delayed process of the abortion ban, there is unfortunately no reason to celebrate. It may appear that the authorities are deliberately delaying the process while waiting for the demonstrations against the abortion ban to receive less support. In other words; it is more important than ever to support the Polish activists who stand up for women’s right to decide over their own bodies.
The European Union cannot let Poland continue to oppress its own people, support the discrimination of the LGBT- community and deprive women of their fundamental reproductive rights. Europe must condemn the restriction of women’s access to safe and legal abortion, and Poland´s LGBT- free zones must be fought. No European citizen should be punished for their government’s failure to respect the founding principles of the Union. We must protect our European democracy, our values and our citizens.