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Irrational non-reproduction? The ‘dying nation’ and the postsocialist logics of declining motherhood in Poland

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Polish birthrates during the state socialist period, 1948–1989, stayed above replacement level but since 1989 fell dramatically to one of the lowest in Europe, at 1.29 in 2010. The Polish Catholic Church and the newly-elected nationalist government of Lech Wałęsa reacted by escalating pronatalist rhetoric calling on women to increase childbearing in the name of economic and nationalist causes. Reflecting the renewed dominance of the Church, Wałęsa implemented restrictions on family planning, including abortion, contraception, and sex education, justifying them in moral and demographic terms. Plummeting fertility has been portrayed by the Church, media, and state as dangerous and unreasonable – a sign of Polish women's rejection of motherhood and the embrace of selfish priorities. Simultaneously however, the state cut back motherhood-friendly policies established by the socialist regime, including subsidized childcare, maternity leave, and healthcare. This paper draws on 19 months of fieldwork between 2000 and 2007, using interviews with 55 women in four healthcare clinics in Gdańsk area, and participant-observation at the social services offices in Krakow. This paper shows that far from irrational rejection of motherhood, Polish middle-class women are guided by pragmatic reasons when delaying parenthood in order to navigate the new political landscape marked by job insecurity and gendered discrimination in employment. Yet, rather than implementing work-family reconciliation policies that have stimulated fertility elsewhere in Europe, the Church and state insist on blaming women for ‘irrational’ non-reproduction, thus betraying a lack of political commitment to gender equity in employment, reproductive health, and in the family.

Keywords: Catholic Church; Poland; fertility decline; gender inequity; middle classness; postsocialist neoliberalisation; reproductive decision-making

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Anthropology,University of Central Florida, Howard Phillips Hall 309, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando 32816, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2012

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