Learning from Poland: why a rise of moral conservatism infringes upon women’s rights everywhere

With a new bill threatening to restrict almost all rights to abortion, Polish women are engaged in the fight of a generation. Georgian women have this right. But it is fragile, and under threat. It takes all of us to preserve it.

Photo credits to foreignpolicy.com

On the 22nd of October the Polish Constitutional Court made abortions illegal in almost every case. Even the abortion of foetuses with birth defects was deemed unlawful, further tightening the rights of women in the country with one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Warsaw since. Despite Covid restrictions banning gatherings larger than five, the chorus of their voices led the Polish Government  to delay the publication of the ruling, and managed to shift public opinion away from their moral conservatism. 

And yet, the fight over the right to abortion in Poland is a stark reminder of the fragility of women’s rights elsewhere across the post-Soviet region. Georgians may have felt far removed from it, preoccupied by the election and the pandemic. They are not. The threat to women’s rights is real, and it takes action now.

Women’s reproductive rights in Georgia

Abortion was a common practice in Soviet Georgia – the USSR was the very first country granting women abortion rights in the 1920s. However, this did not mean the Soviet elites were concerned with women’s rights. Rather, the need to resort to abortions was viewed as a result of social inequality during Tsarism, which would change with the development of communism. 

The 1995 Georgian constitution grants women the right to an abortion. Nonetheless, there is an enormous discordance between the constitution and women’s everyday experience. First, it is expensive. Ranging from 80 to 250 GEL, the cost is out of reach for poor women, the very young, and unemployed. Second, even if legal, abortion is extremely stigmatised due to the popular ideals of femininity, sexuality and motherhood. Reports by HERA XXI also found that medics refused to perform the procedure on the grounds of moral or religious views. 

In a statement to the plenary session of the parliament made on October 15, 2019, an independent MP Alexandre Erkvania called abortion a “demographic catastrophe” – despite the absence of any evidence. On Sept. 22, 2020, he introduced a new legislative draft asking for the banning of abortion, in all but cases of incest, rape, and health to the mother’s life.

Photo credits to parliament.ge

Generally, restrictive propositions invite controversy in the local political elites. This time, though, liberally-minded politicians are mostly concerned with the election results. This lurch to moral conservatism should concern us all. 

Under the long shadow of social conservatism

Georgia and Poland share similar levels of social conservatism, not just a Soviet past. Influential religious institutions skew popular attitudes away from women’s rights and, with it, away from liberalism in both countries. The Polish Archbishop Polak has recently stated that “every form of life, from conception to natural death” should be respected, and therefore, abortion should be prohibitted. In a similar fashion, the Georgian Catholicos Patriarch has often proclaimed that “the state should adopt an appropriate law to ban abortion due to a difficult demographic situation”. Opposing LGBTQ+ rights, contraception, or abortion, both institutions demand ‘family values’ centred on patriarchal conceptions of gender roles.

Photo by Andiy Tod

Consequently, public opinion on abortion is extremely negative in Georgia. According to the 2017 household survey conducted by CRRC, 69% of Georgians believes that abortion can never be justified, and only 10% of Georgians supports it. 

Why this matters 

Criminalising abortion does not reduce the demand for it. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate is 37 per 1000 people in restrictive countries, but 34 per 1000 people in states with legalized abortion. Regardless of legality, desperate women will find a way.

There is a real risk that women denied access to safe abortions will interrupt unwanted pregnancies with clandestine methods that put their health, and their finances, at risk. According to a 2014 WHO estimates, 8% of maternal deaths worldwide are caused by unsafe abortions. Costs for such blackstreet botched operations are extortionate. Middle class women who can afford it may travel abroad, and terminate their pregnancies in states that allow it. In 2007, when abortion was still illegal in Ireland, 200 Irish women travelled to the UK every week – and similar dynamics happen between Poland and its neighbours. But to add the trauma of travel and cost of deciding to interrupt a pregnancy only violates women’s right of self-determination further.

A ban on abortion also increases the risk of child abandonment. In Ceausescu’s Romania, where abortions were criminalised from 1967 to 1990, this resulted in 170,000 children in orphanages, who were often physically abused. Abandonment can also be psychological, in the form of neglect of ‘unwanted’ or ‘unplanned’ children.

Restrictive abortion fuels discrimination against non-cisgender people (people whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth) as well. These includes  transgender, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, or people of other sexes/genders. We should acknowledge that not everyone seeking abortion is a woman. 19% of non-cisgender people worldwide is refused medical care, including abortion procedures. Given popular negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community in Georgia, we should be eternally vigilant in the fight against discrimination. We should be mindful of protecting human rights.

Protecting women’s rights in Georgia

We talked to  Tekla Tevdorashvili, a co-founder of feminist organisation and online platform Grlzwave.

Founders of Grlzwave: Sopo Buadze, Atina Bregvadze, Tekla Tevdorashvili

“The most important weapon in this war is putting emphasis on raising awareness about controversial issues such as abortion”, she noted. “Both feminist organisations and citizens should highlight the reasons why banning abortion is harmful and what the consequences are…We should also be mindful of filtering the information and avoiding the spread of ‘Fake News’, which lead to misconceptions.”

We have to remember that reproductive rights are also human rights. They are part of the moral order which governments and the electorate choose to uphold. They speak to the ways in which we imagine liberal citizenship, and the right to self-determination. 

Today, Georgian women are lucky to have them, at least at the level of the Constitution. Tevdorashvili hopes and trusts that Erkvania’s anti-abortion draft bill will be defeated by the Tbilisi legislature, since any other outcome would set the country back by decades. Yet again, she adds, she did not anticipate the abortion bill being approved in Poland either. 

If we want Georgia to steer clear from the path of Poland’s turn to conservatism, women’s rights  must be defended. This is a duty we all carry.