A recent webinar hosted by the cross-party MEPs for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (SRR) group examined this pushback, often orchestrated by European and global networks who manage to infiltrate institutions and governments.
Opening the webinar, Urszula Grycuk, an International Advocacy Officer at Federa, the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, presented a report on the Polish ultra-conservative Christian- Catholic legal think tank and political organisation Ordo Iuris, which describes itself as promoting “a legal culture based on respect for human dignity and rights.”
Grycuk explains that Ordo Iuris does not operate at the grassroots level. “They are serious guys: very well-educated lawyers with good degrees. Ordo Iuris are the guys in ties, who speak well, but you need to understand their methods, you need to know how to decode their language. For regular Polish people, they often use words like ‘family’ and ‘values’ - that’s where the danger lies.”
Grycuk says that self-proclaimed pro-life organisations appear to have multiplied exponentially in recent months, and that their rhetoric is cloaked in the language of human rights but nevertheless they seek to strip EU citizens of their basic freedoms and reduce access to essential health care.
“TFP is back. It used to be a Latin American network, it was dormant, and now it has re-emerged in Europe. It is strongest in Poland but has set up networks across Europe” Neil Datta, EPF Secretary
“They very much unite around the agenda and they help organise street actions, to run with the trucks showing bloody foetuses after abortion,” she says, adding, “but Ordo Iuris are the serious ones - just to illustrate that this is a multi-level cooperation.”
Grycuk explains that to counter this, women’s rights movements in Poland are using advocacy to reach people. “What is important is to show people that the rights we are fighting for are really fundamental rights that concern us all. The right to abortion is not only about abortion; it’s about access to health as well. And now the populist political parties are trying to take it all back. That’s why it has become so aggressive and violent in Poland, because we cannot allow these basic rights to be taken away from us.”
Neil Datta, Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), presented their new report on Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) - the network behind Ordo Iuris.
TFP is a Catholic right-wing movement founded in Brazil in 1960. Datta says that it was important to understand that TFP is back. “It used to be a Latin American network, it was dormant, and now it has re-emerged in Europe. It is strongest in Poland but has set up networks across Europe.”
TFP has engaged in public protest in Poland and across Europe, including in Place Luxembourg in Brussels, next to the European Parliament. “Another thing that they do is youth training; they organise camps for young men and adolescent boys which gradually socialises them to TFP ideals.”
Datta says that another TFP tactic is “alliance building and capacity building of far-right extremist political parties.” He explains that in Poland, TFP is very close to certain far-right groups and is extending its networks even further afield, adding, “we know that the charismatic leader of the Vlaams Belang here in Belgium participated in youth training in Poland.”
Datta says it was important to bear in mind that TFP is a multi-faceted organisation. “It has a lot of different brands that it can offer: an anti-abortion one; a TFP one; a cultural one. It also has a very broad agenda covering socially conservative, anti-sexual reproductive health and rights and anti-LGBT agenda.
It also has an anti-social welfare, pro-privatisation and anti-environmental economic agenda. And it has a political agenda, aimed at entering decision-making spaces, so, TFP/ Ordo Iuris have made significant inroads in Poland. And they’re aiming for the same thing in other countries.”
“What is important is to show people that the rights we are fighting for are really fundamental rights that concern us all. The right to abortion is not only about abortion; it’s about access to health as well” Urszula Grycuk, International Advocacy Officer at Federa
Renew Europe deputy Sophie in ‘t Veld, who chaired the webinar, points out that although extremists are loud, they’re not the majority. “But they manage to somehow dominate the political and public debate. They also manage to get people into key positions. And very often they are unrecognisable because they don’t use words which label them as the extremists that they are; they use the same language as we do, human rights language.”
Dutch S&D member Vera Tax says that before the Coronavirus outbreak she visited Poland, adding, “it’s really depressing if you are there and you hear the stories first-hand of people explaining what happened to them. For example, when a girl or a woman goes to the doctor, the doctor can deny access to birth control. And even if your doctor says yes, then you go to the pharmacist, and even they can deny you birth control.”
In t’ Veld argues, “as long as the issue can still be portrayed as ‘just a women’s issue’, it’s not seen as essential. I mean if you imagine that, for example, during the COVID crisis, healthcare had been withheld from patients, there would have been outrage, that would have been seen as a grave human rights violation. But when essential sexual and reproductive healthcare is withheld, then it’s seen as something non-essential, not a human rights violation.”
Closing the event, Belgian Greens MEP Petra De Sutter, EPF President reiterates, “It is great to meet all our friends and raise awareness about what is going on in Europe regarding the ultra-conservative, traditionalist forces, attacking our rights and freedoms… this is also a matter of public health and should matter to everyone. With EPF SRR and MEPs for SRR we will continue this fight.”