The outcry over a controversial IVF law in Poland has become “a discussion about the role and place of the Catholic Church” in the country, a cultural anthropologist has said.

Driving the news

Dr Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz, an academic from the University of Warsaw, was reflecting on the growing protests to a 2015 legislative change that means women can be robbed of their embryos if they have not been implanted in twenty years, and no longer have a male partner.

Barbara Szczerba is typical of those women affected by the polemical IVF law.

Because she is separated from her husband, she is now treated as an “anonymous donor” under the legal change.

That means the embryos she kept in reserve after successful IVF treatment could one day be given to a couple she has never met, without her permission, for that couple to raise the baby as their own.

“If the embryos are taken away from me physically, I know that after 20 years they will no longer be mine – [they will be] taken away against my will”, Barbara lamented.

“The fate of these embryos is decided not by me, but by someone else.

“Women in Poland are not taken seriously… nobody takes their rights seriously. It’s treated as something made up, something that women want but do not deserve”.

Go deeper

Radkowska-Walkowicz said the IVF law is the latest chapter in a war on women in Poland being driven by the right-wing governing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

The PiS is desperate for the approval of the Catholic Church, which opposes IVF and constantly urges politicians to restrict it.

The Polish IVF law “accounts for the traditional Polish family and its creation”, Radkowska-Walkowicz explained.

There is no room for the single mother, who, of course, has her own place in Polish life and society”.

To understand how and why the Church engineered the IVF law change, one need look no further than the opinion on the treatment of the Catholic-backed Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, which in fact had pushed the Government to go further with the 2015 law and ban IVF in Poland entirely.

“We sent our legal opinions… some of them were heard, most of them were not”, said Nikodem Bernaciak, an analyst at Ordo Iuris.

“In IVF procedures, you have to create six human beings and you choose only one of them, and other embryos are frozen — and probably for 20 or 30 years — eventually they will be destroyed”, Bernaciak added.

“The one embryo is chosen because of its genetic predispositions and the others are described as worse than this chosen one, so we are not afraid of calling it contemporary human eugenics”.

Why it matters

Because of the Church’s fierce opposition to IVF that led to the 2015 legal change, Polish women affected by the law are resorting to “reproductive tourism” to move their embryos overseas, or to inseminate themselves using sperm from abroad, Radkowska-Walkowicz denounced.

That’s with the all the associated economic and emotional costs of doing so, the anthropologist added.

It’s just one more example of the erosion of women’s rights in Poland.

“On the one hand, surveys and public opinion questionnaires show Poles being in favour of in vitro fertilisation”, Radkowska-Walkowicz said.

“On the other hand, for the last several years there has been a political debate where many hurtful things are being said to couples attempting to get pregnant through in vitro fertilisation as well as children born from this treatment”.

Other Polish women like activist Barbara Baran liken the corrosion of women’s rights in the country to the attack on the LGBT community also driven by the Church and the PiS Government.

“For the last four years, we’ve been seeing shrinking space of civil rights… we are really scared [about] what is going to happen”, Baran deplored.

Next on Novena:

Polish Bishops turn blind eye to far-right march for country’s “Catholic identity”

Vocations plummet in Poland: 20% fewer in just one year


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.