Analysis Politics

How the New Polish Government is Less Homophobic But More Anti-Choice

Maria M. Pawlowska

Last month, Polish citizens re-elected the prime minister and voted in some historic candidates. While the prime minister is liberal when it comes to the economy, his government is conservative about social issues and did nothing in its first term to improve the appallingly bad reproductive health situation. 

Poland tends to get associated with a number of different things depending on interests and geographical location. The French perceive us as skilled plumbers, the Japanese and music lovers think of Chopin, and Americans and food lovers associate Poland with superb sausages. However, if you’re interested in reproductive rights what comes to mind when Poland is mentioned is not classical music or good simple food, but an awfully restrictive anti-abortion legal framework and a strong political will to make things worse (I wrote more about the anti-abortion laws and their history here). Over the past 20 years the political allegiance of those in power didn’t seem to matter much, left or right—they were always mostly white males over 45 with no intention of getting into trouble with the Catholic Church by talking about reproductive health, or anything to do with sex for that matter, including sex education in schools or even contraception.

However, just last month a historical thing happened in Poland (a few actually). For the first time in recent history, we re-elected the same government. This was big news back in Poland. Many people, whatever their feelings towards the somewhat hilariously (in English) named Prime Minister Donald Tusk, were pleased with the thought that we are coming of age as a democracy. Others were excited that the far right, Eurosceptic, nationalist (and I could just keep the negative adjectives coming) Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the identical twin brother of the former president who died in a plane crash last year—did not win the elections. Some were also genuinely pleased that Tusk—a self-proclaimed, liberal conservative—stayed in power. But make no mistake, Tusk and his Civic Platform party are liberal when it comes to economy and deregulation and conservative when it’s about social issues. Although Mr. Tusk grandly declared that “he will not kneel in front of bishops” and that he “answers to the people and not the Catholic priests,” he has not in fact done anything which the bishops would have looked upon unkindly.

In his previous four years as head of the Polish government, Tusk has literally not done a single thing to improve the current, appallingly bad, reproductive health situation in the country. There is still no evidence-based sex education in the vast majority of schools; contraception (other than barrier methods) still has to be prescribed by a gynecologist and is still expensive and not refunded; abortion is legal but only if the pregnancy is the result of a crime or the health or life of the fetus or mother is endangered (and even then it is very difficult to obtain). Things don’t seem to be looking too good, do they? And there’s more—Elzbieta Radziszewska, the equality minister for the past four years, was openly anti-feminist and anti-gay.  For example, she said on live television that she “will not take these arguments seriously because they are coming from a gay man.”  (I should also note that the man in question was not publicly out at the time she made her outrageous statement.)

So in a country with no sex education, (practically) no abortion, and a homophobic equality minister, things couldn’t really get much worse (not within the legal framework of what the EU allows for, anyway). Therefore, it was with some hope that I looked forward to the current elections. However, a month down the line, my feelings are mixed to say the least. Let’s take a look at some of the good stuff first.

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  • Anna Grodzka—the first transsexual parliamentarian EVER ANYWHERE— got elected to the Polish parliament. What’s more, she got elected from Cracow—the capital of the conservative Polish south. Now, there’s a victory for tolerance and inclusion if I ever saw one.
  • Wanda Nowicka—the head of the Polish Planned Parenthood International affiliate also got elected and became the deputy speaker of the Parliament.
  • Robiert Biedron—an LBGTQ activist got elected as the first openly homosexual parliamentarian.

Oh, and the homophobic equality minister got sacked (only about three-and-a-half years too late).

It being Poland and the government being “liberal-conservative,” not all the news is this good, of course. The major negative jaw-dropper is the new Minster of Justice. When gossip first broke, on the eve of the official announcement, that Jaroslaw Gowin might get the Ministry of Justice, everyone thought it was a joke. I didn’t even bother reading about it because the idea seemed so ridiculous. And good for me, because I got an additional 12 hours free from worrying about the state of the Polish legal system and particularly the abortion laws.

The thing is, Jaroslaw Gowin as minister of justice is no less ridiculous, now that it’s true, than it was when we all thought it was just a bad joke. Gowin is a philosopher with no legal background whatsoever. Somewhat weirdly, the prime minister said that his lack of legal training or education is in fact an advantage, because he has no vested interests or dues to pay. That he may have absolutely no idea what he’s doing didn’t seem to occur to Tusk as a potential issue. All this may look like just another crazy “he’s my good buddy and I owe him a favor” ministerial nomination, if not for fact Gowin is also a Catholic fundamentalist and an affiliate of the notorious Opus Dei.

Gowin has a PhD in philosophy and his previous ventures into law-making could be seen as somewhat relevant to his education. He was appointed by the prime minister to write the bioethics (aka in-vitro) bill. Personally, Gowin believes in-vitro to be dehumanizing baby-killing (instead of a solution for infertility), but he was gracious enough to put his Catholic views aside when writing what may become the law of the land in a supposedly secular country. Well, he sort of tried to put his views aside (I think). He ended up drafting a bill, which if turned into law would allow only married couples to create no more than two embryos which could not later be destroyed (or used for scientific purposes). Also, no woman older than 40 would be allowed the treatment (even though women older than 40 are the primary audience for such treatment). Gowin confessed that if it were up to him, he would straight out put a moratorium on in-vitro procedures and have none of this godlessness happening in the country that spawned the previous Pope.

And, in case there was any doubt about his views on terminating pregnancies—according to the new Minister of Justice, abortion is bad and should be completely delegalized. However, Gowin said he won’t attempt that because it might turn out to be counterproductive and end up winning more support for the “leftist/liberal/communist” pro-choice agenda. The fact that if he de-legalized abortion in a sovereign state that declares the separation of state and church in the constitution he would be blatantly writing the law according to the wishes of another country’s leader (the Holy See) is not an issue for him.

Overall, the view for the next four years is a mix of the good and the scary. The ultra-Catholic minister of justice with no previous experience in serious law-making is definitely pretty depressing; but to lighten the mood Poland now has a deputy speaker of the parliament who is vocally pro-choice and got elected by talking about abortion and women’s rights. And the first openly homosexual member of parliament will also, whether the conservatives like it or not, lead to a “normalization” of the concept of same-sex public figures. Just recently, Julia Pitera, the prime minister’s anti-corruption expert, made a complete fool of herself on live television by saying that Biedron cannot use the term “below the belt” (as in, “this argument is below the belt”) because he’s gay and that makes it obscene. I kid you not, she actually said this on live television. The journalist interviewing her looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether she was crazy and hearing things or whether Pitera was crazy and actually did just say what she thought she said. Needless to say, the prime minister who tolerated his homophobic equality minister for the past four years did absolutely nothing about this. (On a side note, the prime minister himself has used the term “below the belt” numerous times but Pitera said that it is okay for her boss to say that, because he’s heterosexual.)

In his exposé the prime minister said it’s not the government’s role to bring about social revolutions—by which he most likely meant that there will be no civil partnerships for homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter), because yes, Poland is a country where letting two adults formally sanction their relationship amounts to a revolution if they happen to be of the same sex. We haven’t even gotten close to seriously considering the refunding of contraception or infertility treatment or to instituting evidence-based sex education in schools. I’d rather not think what the prime minister would say about teaching 15-year-olds about the importance of consent and STI and pregnancy prevention. He’d probably call that a total social meltdown.

So it seems we’re up for more of the same—the “abortion consensus” will remain the travesty that it is, and the conservatives will not allow for the refunding of contraception or proper sex education in schools. But the winds of change are blowing. Homophobia is no longer okay and getting elected by talking about abortion is obviously entirely doable. Polish people (at least some of them) feel the need to drop the corset of Catholic morality that’s been stifling proper debate and not permitting people to be treated as reasonable adults who can make their own informed choices. Hopefully, these four years will result in more debates about reproductive rights and health than ever before, and then, maybe the next government will finally bring about some real legislative and practical changes.

Analysis Law and Policy

Dr. Tiller’s Murderer May Have New Chance to Argue That Anti-Choice Violence Is Justifiable

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Convicted murderer Scott Roeder is set to be re-sentenced in connection with the death of Dr. George Tiller while his associate Angel Dillard will stand trial for threatening another Wichita, Kansas abortion provider. These are particularly alarming developments at a time when anti-choice violence has spiked.

It only took a jury about half an hour in 2010 to convict Scott Roeder of first-degree murder for the 2009 shooting death of Dr. George Tiller at Tiller’s church in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder admitted during the trial that he had thought about and planned Tiller’s murder for years. He offered no witnesses in his defense. Instead, Roeder argued that he was justified in Tiller’s murder because it was the only way to end abortion in Wichita.

Roeder was sentenced to life with no chance for parole for 50 years, otherwise known as a “hard 50.” But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled juries, not judges, needed to make certain criminal sentencing decisions. Though a jury convicted Roeder of the crime of first-degree murder, a judge issued his sentence. That means Roeder’s underlying murder conviction stands, but the amount of time he’s supposed to serve is now up for grabs. On Wednesday, a judge ruled that a new jury will have to decide if Roeder’s “hard 50” sentence was justified. And with that potential new sentencing comes a fresh opportunity for Roeder and his attorneys to advance the radical legal argument that the murder of abortion doctors is justified under the law—a particularly alarming sentiment at a time when anti-choice violence has spiked.

The necessity defense invoked by Roeder is an actual, legitimate legal defense where the defendant argues they committed a particular crime in order to avoid a greater “harm or evil” being committed.  To that extent, it is not so much an “I didn’t do it” defense as it is a “there’s a good reason why I did it, and so you should go easy on me” defense. In Roeder’s case, as echoed by other anti-choice radicals, murdering abortion doctors is “necessary” to prevent the greater evil of legal abortion.

Not all states recognize the necessity defense; Kansas generally doesn’t. And suffice it to say that no court has recognized the defense in connection with the murder of a doctor for doing his job. But that didn’t stop Roeder and his attorneys from arguing it anyway, and it won’t stop them from doing it again this summer. 

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Nor, for that matter, did it stop Sedgwick County District Court Judge Warren Wilbert from saying Wednesday that Roeder may have a constitutional right to present his evidence for why the necessity defense should apply to his case. Essentially, Roeder and his attorneys can potentially outline for a new jury all the reasons Roeder felt his killing of Tiller was for the greater good. 

This is not the first time Wilbert has indicated a willingness to consider Roeder’s “necessity” defense. Wilbert also oversaw Roeder’s initial criminal trial and ruled that Roeder couldn’t specifically argue the necessity defense because Kansas law does not recognize it. But Wilbert did leave the door open for Roeder to present during his first trial evidence and arguments that he murdered Tiller to defend the lives of “the unborn.” That opening could have allowed jurors to find Roeder guilty of a lesser charge like voluntary manslaughter, defined under Kansas law as the “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” That didn’t happen, thankfully, and the jury convicted Roeder of intentional first-degree murder, a crime that carries an automatic sentence of life in prison. Now, because of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, a jury will determine whether Roeder must serve at least 25 or 50 years of his life sentence before he is eligible for a parole hearing.

Roeder’s next scheduled hearing is on April 29, when Roeder’s attorneys have been instructed by the court to provide any “mitigating factors” a jury should consider in weighing Roeder’s sentence. Roeder’s actual sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Roeder’s re-sentencing may seem like one of those “procedural” issues that doesn’t change much. The chance of Roeder, who was 51 when convicted, of dying in prison is likelier than him ever being paroled. But it is a procedural issue that comes at an inauspicious time for the issue of violence against abortion providers, especially in Kansas.

Angel Dillard, a woman who claims to be a “minister” to Scott Roeder, is set to stand trial in Kansas on May 3 for claims she threatened Dr. Mila Means, another Wichita abortion provider, out of taking over Tiller’s clinic following his murder. According to reports, Dillard told Means in a 2011 letter that thousands of people across the country were looking into her background. “They will know your habits and routines,” the letter read. “They know where you you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car [every day]—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” That letter prompted the Department of Justice to bring a Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act claim against Dillard. Initially, a federal court ruled Dillard’s letter was protected free speech, but a federal appeals court overturned that decision and ordered Dillard to stand trial.

During their initial investigation of Dillard, the Obama administration had tried, unsuccessfully, to find out what connection she had to Roeder after prison logs revealed Roeder had several communications with Dillard and Rev. Michael Bray. Bray, an Ohio anti-choice radical, also promotes the use of lethal force in the battle over abortion rights, and spent four years in prison in connection with attacks on several abortion clinics in the Washington, D.C. area.

When Dillard’s trial begins in May, the Justice Department could, through other evidentiary means, be able to make the specific connections between Roeder, Dillard, and Bray without relying on testimony from any of them. Justice Department attorneys may even be able to connect Tiller’s murder, and the threats against Means, to other Wichita-based anti-choice activists like Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman. When Roeder was arrested, for example, he had Newman’s second-in-command Cheryl Sullenger’s phone number in his car. Sullenger served almost two years in prison after pleading guilty to her role in a 1988 plan to bomb a California abortion clinic.

And, of course, the consequences of these operations reach beyond Wichita or anti-choicers’ direct contacts. Most recently Sullenger and Newman have admitted to their roles in “consulting” with the radical anti-choice Center for Medical Progress, an organization set up by David Daleiden and others to try and prove through infiltration that Planned Parenthood and other providers were selling unlawfully selling fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. But CMP’s videos, and the dozens of baseless state and federal investigations they’ve inspired, have produced a significant uptick in violent threats and activities against abortion providers, such as the Black Friday siege of a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The attack ended in the shooting deaths of three people; the accused shooter, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., has said he committed the murders to “save the babies.”

Dear had initially said he planned to plead guilty to the murder charges connected with the Planned Parenthood attacks. He has apparently changed his mind and, if found competent to stand trial, would now like to plead not guilty.

There is no evidence, at least none disclosed, that Dear had any direct contact with anti-choice radicals like Newman or Sullenger, or that he even knows who they are. The Colorado Supreme Court recently ordered documents related to Dear’s arrest unsealed. They could be disclosed as soon as next week, and could provide more answers as to any relationships Dear has with the broader anti-choice movement.

Roeder, Dillard, Dear. All three cases will be going on this summer as anti-choice activists descend in July on Wichita to mark the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy, a massive protest organized by radicals to try and make Wichita “abortion free.” Operation Rescue first orchestrated the 46-day campaign in 1991; Operation Save America (OSA) has since picked up the mantle. According to Rusty Thomas, director of OSA, July’s protest will focus on “states defying a tyrannical court” that recognized the right to an abortion.

“They must do their duty to interpose and nullify that lawless decree and protect the preborn,” Thomas told Christian Newswire.

Thomas insists July’s protests will be peaceful. But anti-choice radicals also insist their rhetoric and propaganda have no link to violence against abortion providers, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. So even if Thomas is correct and July’s protests produce no immediate acts of violence, the Roeder, Dillard, and Dear trials show “peaceful” anti-choice activity is an oxymoron.

Many anti-choice radicals hold Roeder up as a hero, and his re-sentencing hearing provides an opportunity to rally against the “lawless decree” of Roe v. Wade, as well as the courts that protect abortion rights and  convicted Roeder of his crimes. It also provides as a forum for Roeder and his attorneys to yet again advance, even fruitlessly, the legal argument that murder of an abortion doctor can sometimes be justified if the murderer really truly believes they are preventing a greater evil. Dillard will be arguing in her trial that her letter to Dr. Means suggesting she’d wake up to a bomb under her car wasn’t truly a threat because abortion providers should just expect those kinds of letters. Roeder, Dillard, and their attorneys will be in courts of law in Kansas arguing for not just the normalization of violence against abortion providers, but the legal justification for it. And Dear’s trial will be displaying the natural extension of that rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Thomas will be calling on their supporters and the courts to ignore the rule of law. That is troubling—to say the least.

News Abortion

The Latest Anti-Choice Strategy: Less Planned Parenthood Bashing, More Insurance Bans

Emily Crockett

To win over the middle, anti-choice leaders argued at CPAC, it's more helpful to message around "incremental" abortion restrictions like 20-week bans or insurance coverage restrictions.

Click here to read more of Rewire‘s coverage of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Abortion issues were mostly treated as an afterthought on the main stage of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But in breakout panels, anti-choice groups had in-depth discussions with supporters about strategies to continue rolling back access to reproductive health care.

Representatives from the anti-choice groups Americans United for Life (AUL), Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, and National Right to Life spoke to CPAC attendees Friday and Saturday at panels called “Baby Steps: The Pro-Life Success Story” and “Supply-Side Strategy: Exposing and Confronting the Abortion Industry as Big Business.”

AUL President Charmaine Yoest started one panel with stories about rogue abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, providing misleading anecdotal evidence that abortion, an exceptionally safe procedure, “harms women.”

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“Why, as I’m talking about the abortion industry, am I so emphasizing women?” Yoest said. “It’s not something that the pro-life movement is necessarily known for.”

The answer, she said, involves legal strategy.

Since Supreme Court precedent from Roe v. Wade stipulates that the state has a compelling interest to protect women’s health, Yoest said, it stands to reason that the anti-choice movement has to pursue a “mother and child strategy.”

That includes passing laws that ostensibly protect women’s health, but actually do nothing of the kind. AUL has a list of seven key bills to restrict abortion access under the guise of helping women.

The strategy also includes putting shoddy evidence before courts and legislative bodies claiming that safe, legal abortion harms women more than it helps them, thereby creating a record that future courts or lawmakers can draw on regardless of scientific merit.

“Every time you introduce a bill in the legislature, every time that you’re engaging in a public debate over how we’re addressing abortion, the legislation you’re standing on gives you a chance…to further the conversation about how it affects women,” Yoest said.

“As we look at our legislative strategy, we need to tie that into our legal strategy.”

Also included in this idea is the so-called supply-side strategy of “educating” the public about the dangers of the “big business” of abortion. Yoest said that Planned Parenthood receives about $1.26 million of federal tax dollars every day—neglecting to mention that none of that federal money can go toward performing abortions.

But at another panel, Yoest acknowledged that since “most Americans have a positive view of Planned Parenthood,” anti-choice activists “need to be training ourselves to speak outside the echo chamber.”

“We’ve got to be careful about our rhetoric,” said National Right to Life’s Darla St. Martin. “At this point in time, this time, this place, this is not a good thing to ask your candidates to do publicly. To say, well, I’m opposed to Planned Parenthood. Because, you and us and everybody, we haven’t yet convinced the public. And that’s our job. We don’t want to put the people who we are trying to elect on the line to do the job that we should be doing.”

A better strategy, panelists argued, is to focus the rhetoric on so-called taxpayer-funded abortions. If more moderate voters can be persuaded by negatively tying the issue to Obamacare, so much the better.

AUL, as Rewire has reported, has led an intense legislative push at the state level to restrict insurance coverage of abortion care, even though the Affordable Care Act doesn’t allow federal money to be directly spent on the procedure.

Panelists said they focused specifically and narrowly on their top two legislative priorities, restrictions on insurance abortion coverage and 20-week abortion bans, which are unconstitutional and contradict Roe v. Wade.

That goes for the federal level as well as the state—a national 20-week ban bill was pulled after a GOP intra-party fight over rape exemptions, but it was replaced by an insurance coverage ban that passed the House.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List, called the federal 20-week bill a “litmus test” for Senate candidates, and called the fight for that bill “the most important moment in the pro-life movement since 1973.”

St. Martin said she didn’t consider the 20-week ban “the end-all, be-all,” but it “builds momentum” for more anti-choice laws and candidates.

“One yard can make all the difference,” Yoest said, using a football analogy. “We’re marching down the field.”