The Mysterious Lawyers Trying to Create Europe’s Most Ultra-Conservative State

Having been instrumental in Poland's near-total abortion ban and influential in the creation of "LGBTQ-free zones", Ordo Iuris has now set its sights on making it more challenging for married couples to get a divorce.
Meet the Ultra-Conservative Lawyers Transforming Poland
Karolina Pawłowska, Director of Ordo Iuris’s International Law Centre. Photo: Evgen Kotenko/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Poland already had some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws when judges on a court stuffed with political appointees ruled that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional, triggering immediate mass protests. For many it seemed to mark the culmination of attacks upon women’s rights led by the hard-right traditionalist ruling party. 

But to a group of ultra-conservative and ultra-organised Polish lawyers, making Poland one of the few countries in the world to so suddenly roll back abortion rights was just the beginning.

Advertisement

On first appearances the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture appears to be a sleek if slightly boring organisation, one of many conservative think tanks working to “defend the family and traditional values” through research, advocacy and litigation. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that this group is having a real impact on Poland’s new moral economy, one where abortion has been effectively outlawed and LGTBQ rights have been curtailed

The group helped to develop the “Local Government Charter of Family Rights,” a “pro-family” document which some local authorities in Poland adopted. While the charter does not mention LGBTQ people explicitly, LGBTQ activists have referred to these areas as “LGTBQ-free zones”. On Monday four Polish regions repealed or amended their “pro-family” resolutions after the European Commission threatened to block funding worth more than €125 million (about £107 million). 

Ordo Iuris has denied allegations that its charter is discriminatory, arguing it supports “family, parents and children”, but the organisation has conceded that the charter was crafted in response to the threat of so-called “LGTBQ ideology”. According to its website 39 local governments have adopted the charter.

According to Bart Staszewski, a prominent Polish LGTBQ activist, none of the four regions that repealed or amended their anti-LGTBQ resolutions this week had adopted the “Local Government Charter of Family Rights,” but the region of Łódzkie did. Staszewski told VICE World News via WhatsApp that he expected Ordo Iuris to try to convince Łódzkie not to abandon the charter.

Advertisement
People take part in a pro-choice protest in Warsaw in January, part of a nationwide wave of protests against Poland's abortion laws. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

People take part in a pro-choice protest in Warsaw in January, part of a nationwide wave of protests against Poland's abortion laws. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Ordo Iuris has, by using the language of human rights, coupled with a talent for smart legal analysis, successfully influenced decision makers in the Polish government and initiated civil campaigns to support its anti-LGTBQ, anti-abortion, “pro-family” agenda. It seems this new generation of crusaders is now beginning to target the issue of divorce, striving to make ending marriage more challenging in the EU member state home to 37 million people.

“Ordo Iuris is somewhere between the Church and the State, it’s way more conservative than the Church and it managed to make its way to the state,” says Agnieszka Kościańska, Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Oxford University. “Although Poland is a Catholic country, there is a huge discrepancy between this highly conservative group, which has good connections to the Polish government, and how people live.”

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, has set about fulfilling its right-wing agenda. Supporting some of these developments has been Ordo Iuris. From its base in Warsaw the organisation has said that while it’s not connected to PiS, it has found “many like-minded individuals” in the party. 

Former President and co-founder of Ordo Iuris Aleksander Stępkowski is currently the spokesperson for the Polish Supreme Court and was proposed as a judge candidate to the European Court of Human Rights by the Polish government. According to his profile, Tymoteusz Zych, vice-president of Ordo Iuris, has been a “member of the Family Life and Family Autonomy Council at the Ministry of Justice” since 2015. When Ordo Iuris launched its new university Collegium Intermarium in May, Poland's Minister of Culture, Piotr Glinski, and Minister of Education, Przemyslaw Czarnek, were in attendance.

Advertisement

“There are some members of Parliament, from PiS, that are friendly towards our organisation, that are more conservative [and] who are attached to the values that we also believe in,” Karolina Pawłowska, Director of Ordo Iuris’s International Law Centre, told VICE World News via video call, “we of course are very much interested in keeping this kind of relationship [going]”.

While the organisation regularly produces reports, such as an analysis of the European Commission's action in Poland, and puts on conferences for journalists, its inner workings remain somewhat of a mystery. What is clear however is that Ordo Iuris is part of a bigger ultra-conservative network expanding across Central and Eastern Europe. Most recently the group signed a “cooperation agreement” with the Ukrainian organisation Vsi Razom and has a similar agreement with the Hungarian Centre for Fundamental Rights, which has worked together to bring about a “national conservative awakening in Europe”.

A TFP member takes part in a homophobic demonstration in Warsaw earlier this year. Ordo Iuris says it has no connection to TFP. Photo: Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A TFP member takes part in a homophobic demonstration in Warsaw earlier this year. Ordo Iuris says it has no connection to TFP. Photo: Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ordo Iuris was established in 2013 by the Father Piotr Skarga Foundation, a Polish Catholic organisation, which in turn is reported to have been created by the Father Piotr Skarga Association in 2001. This organisation started its activities in Krakow in 1999 and says it was “inspired” by the group Tradition, Family, Property, or TFP. Founded in Brazil by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in 1960, TFP is a global ultra-Catholic movement that has faced cult allegations. The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights has reported that in 1995 and 1999, the French National Assembly listed “French TFP members among its list of cult-like movements”. Pawłowska told VICE World News that Ordo Iuris has gained independence from its founders and has no connection to TFP. 

Advertisement

In recent years Ordo Iuris has enjoyed many triumphs. It was successful in its mission to remove obligatory anti-discrimination activities in Polish schools through its “Let's protect the children!” campaign, declaring that the requirement was used many times to promote “gender ideology”. 

Ordo Iuris rejects the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that seeks to end violence against women, which Poland ratified in 2015. Instead the group would like to see the Polish government adopt the “Convention on the Rights of the Family”, a document it created. The Ordo Iuris convention defines marriage as “a free and permanent union of woman and man”, does not recognise same-sex relationships and is anti-abortion in its outlook. In April the Polish government moved a step closer to withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention when it sent a bill, which would trigger such a move, to parliamentary committees for examination.

In 2016 Ordo Iuris drafted a law that proposed a near-total ban on abortion. The legislation was rejected by the Polish parliament following the “Black Protests”, where thousands of women went on strike and marched to show their opposition to the law, but Ordo Iuris kept the issue on its agenda. In December 2019, 119 parliamentarians sent a request to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal to tighten the country’s abortion law. This resulted in last October’s ruling that declared abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities were incompatible with the country’s constitution as they amounted to a “forbidden form a discrimination”. 

Advertisement

“This was a great step towards the full realisation of human rights in Poland,” said Pawłowska. “Thanks to the discussion that was started in 2016 we can now have the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on eugenic abortion, so I think it was very important to start the discussion then.”

With abortion now only legal in the case of criminally proven rape or incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger as a consequence of the pregnancy, critics of Ordo Iuris argue it is beginning to turn its attention to divorce. 

A report co-written by the organisation in June on the cost of family breakdowns claimed it cost the Polish state 5,699 million Polish Zloty in 2019 (almost £1.1 billion) and could be “more harmful to a child than the death of one of the parents”. While the organisation says it is not against divorce, brandishing such reports as “fake news”, Pawłowska told VICE World News that Ordo Iuris would like to “introduce some kind of obligatory mediation” or “obligatory time [for couples] to rethink the decision about the divorce” not to make it difficult, but ensure it’s not being “taken very easily and without any consideration”.

A woman takes part in a protest against Poland's near-total ban on abortion, in Warsaw last November. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

A woman takes part in a protest against Poland's near-total ban on abortion, in Warsaw last November. Photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

“Divorce is interesting because it shows what is at stake here” commented Elżbieta Korolczuk, Associate Professor in sociology at Stockholm’s Södertörn University, “Ordo Iuris doesn’t use religious arguments, instead they are using a very progressive type of language… it’s really a 2.0 ultra-conservative agenda”. Casting divorce as a potential economic problem for the Polish state and presenting it as a threat to a child’s welfare is an example of how Ordo Iuris uses the craft of academic argument, the language of human rights and sharp legal analysis to advance its interests. 

Advertisement

One source of pride in the Ordo Iuris community is the new Collegium Intermarium university, which is due to start teaching its first cohort of students in October. Established “as an answer to the crisis of academic life”, the institute aims to “to restore the classical idea of a university”. Focusing primarily on law, Jerzy Kwaśniewski, President of Ordo Iuris and Chairman of the university’s board, said in his inauguration speech: “We need lawyers who not only read the law, we need lawyers who are able to understand it and even write it”. 

“We were very disappointed with the level of Polish universities where you do not have any open and free debate,” Pawłowska told VICE World News. “This is why we came up with the idea of funding the university.” This practice of training an ultra-conservative elite has also blossomed in Hungary where the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) has received generous financial support from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government. This summer Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson thrust the Hungarian institution into the international spotlight when he hosted his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, from Budapest while in town to speak at a conference organised by the MCC.

“This university is a new dimension,” said Remigiusz Bak, Policy Officer at the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, “what’s interesting is they [Ordo Iuris] are exporting this ideology east because so far they failed to do this in the West but in the East, they have already had some successes”. 

“Ordo Iuris is following the path of the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s,” said Korolczuk. “The movement undergoes a process of institutionalisation, you create your own academic institutions, you create your own intellectual authority, you propose language. The difference is they are presenting their ideas as new, where in fact they are quite old… Their ambition is to overhaul social sciences as we know it and that is something not many people in the West know about or take seriously.”