While many European countries are liberalising their restrictive laws on sexual and reproductive health, Poland is moving in the ultraconservative direction. Far-right politicians from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) want to criminalise sexuality education through its newly proposed draft law. Anyone who provides sexuality education or even discusses it in the media might go to jail up to five years. What is the future of sex education in Poland? 

The draft law in question results from a citizen’s initiative commonly known as “Stop Paedophilia”. The committee collected altogether over 260,000 signatures of support surpassing the minimum requirement of 100,000 signatures. Subsequently, the draft law was very quickly added to the parliamentary agenda. The law aims to amend the Polish Criminal Code and its Article 200 to include sanctions for people “publicly promoting or approving of sexual activity of minors”. 

Shockingly, the authors want people providing sexuality education and counselling to be punished with up to three years in jail. The same authors seem to be more lenient with those who promote and approve of actual paedophilia – in their opinion this crime would earn the perpetrator only two years in jail. 

“The draft law was drafted by “Pro – Right to Life Foundation” known for its involvement in the anti-choice movement in Poland”

In the justification of the proposed law, the committee openly admits that its main aim is not to fight paedophilia but comprehensive sexuality education. In their opinion, talking to young people about intimacy, contraception or homosexuality is “demoralising”. According to advocates of the draft law, parents should have the sole right to inform their children about sex. They believe criminalising sex education would contribute to the promotion of “stable and faithful marriages”, reduction in “psychological and social pathologies” and might limit consumption of pornography. 

Who is behind this draft law?

The draft law was drafted by “Pro – Right to Life Foundation” known for its involvement in the anti-choice movement in Poland. Pro foundation has made numerous attempts to push for a complete ban on abortions in Poland. They are also known for organising public “exhibitions” of posters showing bloody tissue and dead foetuses and comparing pro-choice activists like the newly elected left-wing MP Wanda Nowicka to Nazis. 

Whereas progressive groups or decision makers have not even been consulted on the law, the rapporteur appointed on behalf of the parliamentary committee is Olgierd Pankiewicz, a lawyer affiliated with the Ordo Iuris institute, an extreme anti-choice group whose founders have close connections with a controversial Catholic fundamentalist network. 

“According to the law, a sexologist or teacher who would say that “developmentally appropriate masturbation of children and teenagers is normal” might be punished with a jail sentence.”

Educators and professionals are infuriated by the proposal. The Polish Sexology Society (PTS) issued a statement,  urging Members of Parliament to reject the draft. Experts explain “[w]e need to assume that the authors of the draft law expect unequivocal negative assessment of both normative and non-normative behaviours of children and adolescents. This way of thinking about the phenomena of childhood and puberty proves a lack of knowledge about their nature. It also shows the authors do not realize the consequences of banning developmental activity. 

Grassroots educators such as Ponton Group warned in a statement that the law would “cause harm to the youngest Poles, leaving them without reliable education, healthcare (gynaecological consultations, access to family planning and emergency contraception) and everyday, human support in questions of sexuality, puberty and building healthy relationships”.

The draft law itself was also criticized by lawyers who pointed out to inconsistencies and absurdities of the solution. In Poland, the age of consent for sexual activity is 15. The law refers to promoting and approving of sexual activity with minors (in Poland people under the age of 18). In practice this would mean that having sex with teenagers aged 15 to 18 would remain legal but the same teenagers would be denied access to information and means of protection. 

What does sexuality education look like in Poland today?

Although some progress has been made in the past ten years, the current state of sex education is still enormously lagging behind. Schools are obliged to offer classes called “Preparation for Family Life”. Parents have the right to withdraw their child from these lessons if they wish so. The curriculum has been designed by people with strong ties to the Catholic church and is biased towards the “traditional model” of heterosexual marriage and against the right to decide about one’s sexuality. 

Many recommended coursebooks contain non-scientific information – e.g. they demonize contraception and present a heterosexual marriage with children and a traditional division of roles as the only acceptable model of adult relationships.  Fortunately, teachers can interpret the curriculum very broadly and some schools provide comprehensive programs hiring graduates from postgraduate courses specialised in the field or external educators. The sad truth is, however, that many young girls and boys receive no sexuality education at all throughout their education. Sometimes girls only have one class about hygiene, provided by a representative of a company selling menstrual hygiene products.

Public opinion on sexuality education

By imposing a radical law, conservative politicians are clearly not following the needs of the majority of the population. Public opinion polls and more detailed research results are unequivocal: Poles want sexuality education to be taught in schools. 

According to the polling survey from the Public Opinion Polish Center (CBOS) , 84% of the Poles believe sexuality education is needed in schools. 41% think classes should start at the age 10-12 and 45% at age 13-14. More importantly, Polish people do not share the prejudice shown by the ruling party and the authors of the draft law: 74% do not believe sex education demoralizes youth. 

Plans to ban sexuality education caused an uproar in society. Already experienced in organising protests against further restrictions to abortion access, women’s and human rights organizations quickly called for protests in Warsaw and other cities on 16 October 2019, namely on the day of the vote. Protesters at the Sejm, the Polish lower house of parliament, shouted “End hypocrisy” and “Keep your hands off our kids”. Many participants expressed anger at the Catholic church hierarchy which failed to take a strong stance to identify perpetrators of sexual abuse towards children among the clergy. 

“Even celebrities involved in the promotion of sexuality education, such as top model Anja Rubik, could face persecution”

After first reading, the draft law was approved for further proceedings. Since the vote took place during the final parliamentary sittings of the term, it will be further considered by the new parliament which enters into session in November.  

Although the October elections brought left wing and progressive parties back in the parliament, Law in Justice and other conservative forces remain a majority. There is a real risk the draft law might be approved. It is also possible that the quick voting of the draft law a few days after the elections was only a signal sent to the radical voters of the right, showing them the party is grateful for their support. In a more positive scenario, the draft law will remain “frozen” in parliamentary committees.

If the law enters into force, Poland will most likely face international criticism for violating the basic human rights, such as the right to information and reproductive health services. 

It is hard to imagine that in a democratic country scientific experts and doctors might be banned from presenting facts-based knowledge about human sexuality. Even celebrities involved in the promotion of sexuality education, such as top model Anja Rubik could face persecution. 

EU Parliament condamnation

The situation in Poland caught the attention of the European Parliament. On 14 November 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, calling on the Council to “address this matter and other allegations of violations of fundamental rights in Poland”

The resolution recalls numerous human rights instruments, such as the Istanbul Convention and the Convention on the rights of the Child and stressing that equating the promotion of paedophilia with comprehensive sexuality education is “misguided and detrimental”. 

The message sent by the European Parliament to the Polish decision-makers is clear: do not criminalize sexuality education. Moreover, Members of the European Parliament underline the importance of age-appropriate, holistic education about human sexuality for the healthy and safe development of young people. 

As a long-time sex educator, I could not agree more. Polish children and teenagers deserve the trust and support of adults. If they do not learn it from them, the only sex education they can count on would be pornography. They have the right to hear the answers to vital questions about love and intimacy from well-trained teachers and educators.

To know more about sexuality education in Poland, here’s a list of non-governmental organizations and grassroots groups:

Ponton Group of Sex Educators: http://ponton.org.pl/

SPUNK Foundation of Modern Education: https://spunk.pl/about-us/

Federation for Women and Family Planning: http://federa.org.pl/

Polish Women’s Strike: http://strajkkobiet.eu/

FEMINOTEKA Women’s rights, gender-based violence: https://feminoteka.pl/

Campaign Against Homophobia: https://kph.org.pl/