Book Review: The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland

The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Joanna Mishtal.  Athens: University of Ohio Press, 2015, 258 pp.

On April 3, 2016, thousands of protesters participated in a rally in Warsaw, Poland, in opposition to a proposed bill that would institute a complete ban on pregnancy terminations. Currently, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or fetal deformity, and even in these situations, women are often refused termination. According to newspaper accounts, protestors shouted and held signs with such slogans as “My Body, My Business” and “Stop This Bloody War Against Women” (The Guardian 2016). The proposed total abortion ban and the protests it inspired are remarkable for several reasons. First, it demonstrates the continued role of the Catholic Church in shaping Polish social and political policy. Second, it highlights the continued efforts of women’s rights organizations to advocate for reproductive rights and health policy that align with European Union positions on abortion, sex education, and contraception. Finally, this proposed ban is taking place while Poland continues to face a demographic crisis of declining fertility and significant emigration.

Joanna Mishtal attempts to understand such battles in The Politics of Morality. Mishtal proposes to offer an alternative understanding of Polish democratization refocused on reproductive politics (p. 11). She draws from a deep set of resources for this exploration of reproductive rights in Poland, including her own experience growing up in socialist Poland and in the United States; in-depth interviews with leaders in the Polish reproductive rights movement, doctors and other health care providers, Catholic priests, and women of reproductive age; and a survey of over 400 women. Mishtal begins with a detailed historical and contemporary account of the political alignment between the Catholic Church and the Polish government, clearly illustrating how the church has remained a relevant social and political actor in postsocialist Poland. For example, religious education is mandatory in schools, perinatal care such as epidurals are considered extras during delivery, and physicians have the right to refuse to offer patients oral contraception (though legal) based on religious beliefs. Mishtal then documents feminist activists’ responses to these restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, primarily focusing on a single organization—The Federation of Women and Family Planning. She details the ways in which a Catholic-nationalist gender discourse marginalized feminist movements by portraying feminism as discouraging motherhood and therefore undermining the Polish nation itself. Finally, The Politics of Morality offers personal stories and reflections from Polish women as they try to navigate their desires to create families among competing narratives about what it means to be a modern Polish woman (either self-sacrificing by having many children or delaying or limiting childbearing to benefit their careers).

Drawing on Foucault, Mishtal uses the concept of “moral governance” to extend the lens of governmentality and biopower to religion and the Catholic Church in particular. One of the central tensions in the Polish case of women’s reproductive rights is the continued low fertility rates, despite the Catholic Church’s ability to severely limit women’s access to oral contraceptives and abortion. The Polish context raises interesting questions regarding the relationship between the political power of the church with the disciplinary power of governmentality.

As Mishtal observes, governmentality suggests that social control works through individual internalization of ideological mechanisms (p. 65). On the one hand, the Catholic Church attempts to exercise disciplinary power on women’s reproduction through annual home visits by priests, during which women are asked about their reproductive lives, the sacrament of confession, and a “conscience clause” that allows the church to refuse to work with doctors who provide all reproductive health services to women and allows doctors to decline to provide services to women. On the other hand, women continue to exercise control over their reproduction, for example through so-called white coat abortions offered by licensed gynecologists and advertised in daily newspapers as “menstrual recovery services.” Polish women resist state/church calls for them to increase their fertility because they perceive that the state has failed to facilitate motherhood and social service programs to support the family that had been in place under socialism have been dismantled in the new market economy. As a result, childbearing women in Poland experience numerous social and economic consequences that converge to keep fertility rates low.

Mishtal hints at the emergence of a system of “stratified reproduction” (Colen 1995), in which some women have the means to access private doctors who provide abortions and pay for newer formulations of oral contraceptives with fewer side effects. Mishtal briefly describes the conundrum of lower-income women, who are subject to competing narratives about their reproduction. Nonreligious entities such as social welfare offices excoriate such women as “exercising poor sexual control” and not lacking responsibility for having “too many” children as single children become the middle-class norm and the marker of rational reproductive choices in the new market economy. At the same time, these women are subject to the admonishments of the church–state to have more children through the “Matka Polka” (Polish Mother) imagery to have more children to ensure the survival of the Polish nation.

The Politics of Morality has several weaknesses, particularly related to methods. In general, methodological details are scant regarding how women were identified and recruited to be part of the study. Little information is provided about the content and circumstances of interviews with women or the survey, including what questions were asked and how the data were analyzed. Moreover, Mishtal describes her study sample as “predominantly middle class” women with higher educational and social standing. Given the high cost of illegal abortions and modern contraception, understanding how lower-income women navigate the political and social rhetoric against reduced family size, or how they manage to access the means of controlling their reproduction in spite of the seemingly significant constraints on their ability to do so, would be a worthwhile contribution to the literature on the politics of reproduction in postsocialist contexts, particularly as market forces create greater socioeconomic equalities. Finally, Mishtal at times casts the Catholic Church and its political and medical allies as being so strong and influential that it is a wonder that anyone manages to exercise any control of their reproduction at all. In other words, the subject matter and the methodological approach prevent the opportunity for a rich, ethnographic exploration of gender, power, and reproduction written from the perspective of women’s experiences.

Despite these weaknesses, The Politics of Morality makes an important contribution to feminist scholarship on gender and reproduction in socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe. It provides insights into the ways in which medical personnel and the medical profession are used to legitimate repression of the body. As Mishtal documents, in the Polish case, the medical profession does not protest the church’s role in shaping reproductive health policies but continues to offer illegal but safe abortions from which they benefit financially. This book would be appropriate for graduate level courses on gender and reproduction in post-Soviet contexts. It touches on many common themes in this scholarship, including the boundaries between public and private; the shifting contours of the category woman from the perspective of mother, worker, and wife; how understanding gender and reproductive politics can be used as a lens for understanding marketization; and the creation of new political identities in the postsocialist context. Poland represents an interesting case study of the limits of state and religious power in the sphere of reproduction and the failure of state-sponsored efforts to reverse downward demographic trends in the face of market and social forces that reshape gender norms and ideas about the family. The Politics of Morality is a first step in understanding the complex relationship between state–church power and women’s agency in the context of rapid economic, political, and social change.

References Cited
Colen, S.
1995 “Like a Mother to Them”: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers in New York. In Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. F. D. Ginsburg and R. Rapp, eds. Pp. 78–102. Berkeley: University of California Press.
The Guardian
2016 Thousand Protest in Warsaw against Proposed Abortion Ban. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/03/warsaw-protest-against-proposed-abortion-ban (April 3).

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