As the grant applications season is almost over (or at least suspended until further notice) I have finally managed to find some time and energy to write the post that I originally planned to be 2016’s last entry 😉 In November last year, I started a series of posts aimed at providing a grounding on the current abortion struggle in Poland. The first post was a summary of the main events in 2016, as well as an introduction to some crucial actors. Today, I have decided to give you some historical background to this struggle as it appears that, in this particular case, history does repeat itself. And since my blog deals with men and masculinities issues, I will present to you a portrait of one of the few men who, along with many women, engaged himself in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights. Ladies and gentleman, meet Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński.
When I finished writing my PhD thesis in 2012, I couldn’t have imagined that only five years later the historical chapter of my thesis, aiming to shed light on the forerunners of the Polish profeminist movement, would be so appallingly timely. A significant part of the chapter was dedicated to an analysis of the (pro)feminist dimension of Boy-Żeleński’s activism in the first decades of 20th century. Boy-Żeleński was not only a physician, but also above all a famous publicist, translator and social activist, who played a significant role in the first public discussions in Poland regarding women’s reproductive rights and the decriminalisation of abortion. At the time “(…) there were no legal circumstances justifying abortion in Poland. The penalties for abortion varied according to the penal code of the state ruling over former Polish territory: according to the Austrian penal code of 1852 a woman who had an abortion was liable to a six to twelve-month prison sentence, whereas the Russian penal code of 1903 penalized self-performed abortion with one to three-year’s imprisonment” (Ignaciuk 2007: 34). In 1918, when the Polish people regained their own sovereign state, new legislation was needed, including legislation related to reproductive rights issues. Similar to Poland in 2016/2017, the main actors in these debates were a) the Catholic Church supported by anti-choice activists and b) feminist and socialist activists supported by a handful of progressive men.
One of these men was Boy-Żeleński who in 1929 published his first essay on abortion entitled Krwawe Paragrafy (Bloody Paragraphs), initiating a public debate on the issue. Two years later, he authored one of the most significant books concerning women’s rights in pre-war Poland, entitled Piekło kobiet (Women’s Hell), in which he claimed:“I totally support decriminalisation of abortion. We should prevent it differently: through social reforms, alimony regulations, fatherhood legislation and by changing perceptions regarding unmarried mothers” (1958: 50). Boy-Żeleński tried to convince legislators and the public that it was a mistake to punish women and physicians for performing abortions. He argued that the promotion of (sexual) education and birth-control was a far better approach to preventing abortion. He spread ideas of conscious motherhood, responsible fatherhood, the right to divorce, decriminalisation of homosexuality and gender equality. Further, he was well known as one of the founders (together with Ludwik Szczepański, Dr. Justyna Budzyńska-Tylicka, Dr. Maria Jeleniecka and Dr. Herman Rubinraut) of the first Polish institution promoting conscious motherhood and birth-control. It was called Poradnia Świadomego Macierzyństwa (The Conscious Motherhood Clinic) and it operated in several Polish cities. According to Żeleński, the aim of the clinic was to: “(…) supply not only privileged ones but also those who need it the most with the benefits of conscious motherhood. (…) It is supposed to make women aware of the fact that it is possible and sometimes necessary to avoid pregnancy. It should provide both with an inexpensive and professional medical advice and also the best and cheap contraceptives. It is not a charity institution but a social institution (…). Our aim is to create a society where only people who are able to nurture and raise children have them. ‘Conscious motherhood’ expresses this attitude.” (1958: 132). Another initiative undertaken by Boy-Żeleński was the establishment of the Polish equivalent of the World League of Sexual Reform. Along with activism for sexual rights, including LGBT rights, the league continued to struggle for reproductive rights following the decision made by lawmakers in 1931 to retain the ban on abortion as an important part of Polish legislation. Boy-Żeleński did not give up and continued his fight asking “What else can we do? We should continue our struggle, demonstrate that abortion ban is a harmful absurdity, a tribute to hypocrisy which will be paid by women and one day or another must be abolished” (1958: 113). In this sense, Boy-Żeleński can be compared to Schrödinger’s cat: he was right (abortion was allowed from 1956-1993 and in 1996) and yet, he wasn’t (from 1993 -1996 and from 1997-present the right to abortion has been seriously limited). It is very clear however, that the fight is ongoing and Boy-Żeleński can be seen as one of its patrons.