Throughout the semester’s investigation of gender, feminism, and women writers in Eastern Europe, the theme of women’s bodies frequently arose to the forefront of the discussion, whether in context of liberation and freedom, or oppression, restriction, and control from outside sources. In this case, women’s bodies are placed under the microscope and morally regulated by decisions made by the Polish Catholic Church.
Two chapters from Joanna Misthal’s book, “Politics of Morality,” entitled “Confessions, Kolęda Rituals, and Other Surveillance” and “Abortion, Polish Style” analyze the role of the Catholic Church in Poland and its’ effects on the lives and bodies of Polish women (Mishtal, 110-159). The fourth chapter of the book, “Confessions, Kolęda Rituals, and Other Surveillance” captures the practices of the church, as well as individual priests, identifying behaviors like questions asked during confession (110-139). Misthal found that the practice of asking people about their sex lives during confessional began in the early 1990s, dictated by a manual published by the Vatican detailing consequences for sinners who strayed from morality (Mishtal, 118). While this already appears as an act to pry into the personal lives of members of the church, it is worsened by the fact that women were stigmatized and banished from the church community as a result of acts like having an IUD or using other hormonal birth control methods (Misthal, 122-123). Evident in these examples, is the manipulation of Polish women through the use of morality, a construct of power that is used by Catholic priests in order to ensure that female members of their congregation do not engage in sinful behavior. By the implementation of harsh punishments, such as dismissal from the church or social isolation, the Catholic Church governs the bodies of Polish Catholic women, limiting their bodily autonomy.
While there are negative implications for men involved in “immoral behavior,” such as calling them “un-Christian,” men do not face the same repercussions that women do when it comes to contraceptive methods or sexuality (Mishtal, 125). Based on the writings of the Vatican’s manual, men whose wives use birth control are “innocent bystanders perceived as victims of their wives’ unilateral decision to use birth control” (Misthal, 125). Thus, men are free of responsibility and sin, while women bear shame from their church for their right to a decision regarding their own reproductive autonomy.
The fifth chapter in “Politics of Morality,” “Abortion, Polish Style,” discusses abortion in Poland, stating the rates prior to and following its illegalization in 1993 (Misthal 140-159). As discussed in Misthal’s chapter, an article included in Time magazine noted the Catholic Church’s involvement and support of the illegalization of abortion, including the following quote from the executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw: “This law is a compromise between the Catholic Church and politicians without the participation of women. Our voices were neglected and ignored” (Sifferlin). This quote clearly exemplifies not only the legal influence of the Catholic Church, but also the lack of input from women about choices regarding their own bodies. The Catholic Church’s decision to openly support the abortion ban denotes the powerful role it holds in its’ union with the state, thus dictating what happens to or does not happen to women’s individual bodies.
Additionally, this chapter included first-hand experiences of methods and processes to obtain abortions in secret, private clinics following the abortion ban (Mishtal, 140-159). Women found blatant advertisement in newspapers for doctor’s offices that provided abortions illegally at their private clinic locations, publishing ads that used phrases like “all services provided,” “discreet,” “vacuum method,” or “anesthesia” (Mishtal, 143-145). Signals such as these are currently still denoted with neon hanger signs, as shown in a picture of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw taken by Kasia Strek and included in Sifferlin’s article (Sifferlin). Women also were forced to travel to various nations, such as Slovakia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus in order to gain access to abortions (Misthal, 150), a phenomenon that is still occurring as Polish women are traveling to Germany in order to avoid Poland’s ban (Sifferlin). Initially, I was surprised that police officers did not target this underground contraceptive process, however I figured this was due to the country’s record-low rates of legal abortions (Misthal, 143), as illegal abortions were not documented, deeming Poland (and the Catholic Church) free of the stigma associated with the procedure.
In conclusion, it is clear that in Poland, women’s bodies are being monitored by not only the state, but also the Catholic Church. This surveillance is occurring through the law by the illegalization of abortion, and also through annual visits to community members’ houses by Catholic priests as a part of the Kolęda Rituals, inquiring about sexual practices and contraceptive methods (Mishtal, 110-159). These practices are extremely gendered, placing the brunt of responsibility for immorality in the eyes of the church on women, freeing men of stigma or isolation from the church community (Mishtal, 125).
Mishtal, Joanna. The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Ohio University Press, 2015.
Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Polish Women Fight Back Against Restrictive Abortion Laws.” Edited by Andrew Katz, Time, Time, Mar. 2017, time.com/poland-abortion-laws-protest/.