Schoolchildren in Poland are being awarded extra credit for creating anti-abortion artwork and stories, in what pro-choice activists say is a chilling indication of how extreme the debate over abortion in the staunchly Catholic country has become.
The national competition, called “Help Save the Lives of the Defenceless,” has been run by a pro-life organisation for the last two decades, but this year for the first time, children are being awarded additional points on annual report cards that play a large role in determining what schools they get accepted into.
The competition invites children between the ages of 10 and 18 to explore their literary, artistic and musical creativity in producing works which address “bioethical issues” including “contraception, abortion, IVF and euthanasia”. The website of the Polish Association of Human Life Defenders, which runs the competition, is filled with pro-life propaganda submitted by young children, including watercolour paintings and monochrome sketches with names like “please, don’t let me die” and “abortion is murder.”
“Young children should learn about scientific facts, not religious brainwashing ideology. It’s an offensive campaign, directed by the Polish church and supported by the government,” says Kacper Holda, vice-president of the Young Left youth association.
Anti-abortion rhetoric is increasingly pervading Poland’s education system, with teachers and students being threatened with disciplinary measures for supporting protests.
Earlier this year, the Polish government implemented a near-total abortion ban, prohibiting the procedure for all cases except those on the rare grounds of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is in danger.
The decision slinked by at midnight, after a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in October that declared abortions in the case of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities were unconstitutional – sparking months-long protests across the country last year, the scale of which had not been seen since the fall of communism. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of Poles, led by women, poured onto streets and into the churches of one of Europe’s most devout Catholic nations, with demonstrators interrupting Mass and staging sit-ins as they brandished coat hangers to symbolise dangerous abortions.
Now, many schools in Poland, particularly in the southern regions, are reeling from pro-life beliefs being quietly enshrined as the moral authority.
The Małopolska Board of Education, which oversees education in the province of Lesser Poland including the city of Krakow, was the first to officially recognise the Help Save the Lives of the Defenceless competition as an extracurricular means of attaining points. Other regional education structures of cities such as Lublin, Katowice and Białystok have followed suit, but not all areas of Poland acknowledge the contest as viable.
When journalists asked Barbara Nowak, curator of education in Małopolska, why students are being offered extra credit for a competition that isn’t testing their academic ability, she says: “I am amazed by your ability to use insinuations – that is, opinions that are not anchored in truth. Each competition promoted by the Małopolska Superintendent of Education is based on knowledge.”
The Polish Association of Human Life Defenders has also founded a nationwide BA and MA thesis contest. Maria Rozenbajger, 23, is a 2020 laureate and firm supporter of the abortion ban. “A state that does not protect its weakest citizen – the unborn child – does not protect its citizens at all,” she says. “I believe that the promotion of pro-life, pro-health and pro-family stances is always necessary. By encouraging children to participate in the competition, you can indirectly shape their system of values and way of thinking. Each initiative results in action.”
On both sides of the abortion argument in Poland, imagery is graphic and bloody, seeking, above all, to unsettle the viewer. Rozenbajger’s Facebook cover image requires you to bypass a warning before unblurring into a photograph infamously used by pro-lifers, that of a surgeon operating on an unborn baby in the womb, its pink fleshy arm reaching out. Similarly, activists across the aisle veer towards imagery of rusty iron hangers and dresses stained with a pool of blood. But recently, pro-choice imagery shared online, as well as photos of the Women’s Strike protests (or even posts featuring its symbol, the red lightning bolt) has been cited as reason to punish teachers and students.
Malgorzata Nogalska, a secondary school headmistress, marched in the protests and shared posts supporting the movement on Facebook. After somebody anonymously reported her to the school board – which is controlled by loyalists to the ruling party – for supposedly instigating violence within her students, Nogalska was placed under investigation by a teachers’ disciplinary commission. “They could punish me with a reprimand, but also with dismissal from work, and ultimately with expulsion from teaching. Of course, the situation is very stressful, and has had an impact on my health,” she says.
Teachers across the country are facing parallel threats. Iwona Ochaka, a primary school headmistress and Polish language teacher from Tzcew, was photographed at a protest and subsequently targeted by pro-government TV, before being reported to the board of education. Depending on the disciplinary commission ruling, she could lose her teaching license. “Repression by the authorities has only strengthened my conviction that my actions for women’s rights were correct,” she says.
There is no sex education class on the Polish curriculum, but rather an optional “Education for a family life” course which prepares students for maintaining a household and raising children. “In Polish schools, there’s censorship related to everything that is physical or related to human sexuality. It’s even more than censorship, it’s a conspiracy of silence lined with hysteria. The textbooks are very much based on the principles of religion instead of science,” Ochaka tells VICE World News. “Threats of hell, diseases and ostracism, data falsification, generalisations – these are standard mechanisms in religion classes in Polish schools. The orthodox, unscientific point of view is smuggled in as the only right one, proclaiming more concern for the zygote than for the fate of a real pregnant person.”
In some schools, students are prohibited from using the Women’s Strike symbol on their online learning profiles, and have been removed from remote lessons as a result. Young activists have even been beleaguered by the police for organising protests.
Maciej Rauhut, a 14-year-old from the south of Poland, shared a Facebook post about a demonstration in his city. Hours later, two police officers showed up at his door and accused him of organising an illegal protest. He was threatened with four years in a juvenile facility and four years in prison, but under media pressure, the police dropped the charges. “The police handed me a paper, amongst others, in which it said I was deprived of morals for having a Facebook account. But there were no grounds to open proceedings against me,” Rauhut says.
It is the modus operandi of autocratic states to indoctrinate children, so as to not require policing them as adults. Rauhut’s school is liberal, but he’s noticed it too. “A homophobic, right-wing conservative has been appointed as the Minister of Education and Science and he intends to introduce in textbooks, among other things, that abortion is the murder of a human being. This information already appears in textbooks for religious lessons, published by Catholic publishing houses,” he says.
“For my mother the issue with the police was very stressful. She really thought I’d be deprived of my freedom,” Rauhut says. “My only thought then was that we’re living in a totalitarian regime.”