The conceived child: Material politics in the Polish ‘war on gender’

Andrzej W. Nowak

Introduction: From hegemonic to ontological politics

In this chapter, I focus on the installation of a specific object in the ongoing, so-called ‘war on gender’ in Poland (Duda 2016, Kováts et al. 2015). The object is material-discursive. It is based on the narrative of a ’conceived child’ (or ‘nasciturus’), which is the Catholic-conservative framing of the foetus as a child already at the moment of conception. This narrative gains material form in the shapes of a plastic figurine and a Tamagotchi-like app. My suggestion is that in order to understand the Polish ‘war on gender’, it is necessary to pay attention to how political campaigns are grounded in material objects and how these objects take part in shaping democratic situations.

As Gramsci theorised, ‘winning common sense’ is a key aspect of gaining hegemony (Gencarella 2010). In my understanding of hegemony, I follow Laclau and Mouffe’s reinterpretation of Gramsci’s (2014) classic approach. I also draw on Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of ‘radical democracy’. In their perspective, democracy is an always fragile and unstable result of pro-democratic hegemonic actions under constant threat from counter-hegemonic activities. Here, hegemony is understood as a discursive formation that manages to unify a social and political space through the establishment of ‘nodal points’ and ‘chains of equivalence’ defining this space (Laclau and Mouffe 2014: 136).

This understanding of the production of networks of power is not without similarities to the foundational actor-network theory (ANT) concept of ‘translation’ (see, for example, Latour 1988). Laclau and Mouffe, however, remain attached to the analysis of discourse and language, thus losing the material and institutional moment central to understanding how the democratic situation studied in this chapter unfolds in practice, as the ‘war on gender’ is to a large extent a war fought by material means. In Laclau and Mouffe’s (2014: 151–152) language of radical democracy, the process of gaining nodal points is based on appropriating and redefining central linguistic terms and concepts present in public discourse. Against this understanding of radical democracy, I argue that struggles to ‘win common sense’ with regard to gender in Poland in recent years are not primarily discursive, but happen through ontological politics (See also Mol 1999).

In Annemarie Mol’s (1999: 74) words, ANT underlines ‘that the reality we live with is one performed in a variety of practices’, with the radical consequence that reality has become multiple. What follows is that ‘there are options between the various versions of an object: which one to perform’? To supplement Mol, I propose my own concept of ‘ontological imagination’ (Nowak 2013), which underlines the need for an activist positioning requiring ‘a radical, adventurous imagination, complemented by a purposive will to act’ (Nowak 2016: 377). If we understand ontological politics as performative and able to influence future states of the world by means of crafted objects and practices, this means we must go beyond the purely analytical level, as the political moment of ontological imagination is equally important (Nold 2018). With this imagination we must (re-)construct ontological assemblies in a politically desired direction. In the face of conflicts such as the ‘war on gender’, it is my position that STS researchers ought to dare to design and install socio-material objects around which democratic onto-hegemonic networks can develop and transform our communities.

In this, I follow Papadopoulos’ idea of ‘alterontologies’: alternative ‘ways of life’ which can be crafted and performed (Papadopoulos, 2018: 19). Ontologies are an important aspect of ‘more-than-social movements’ (ibid.). As Papadopoulos puts it: ‘The political organisation of a social movement does not preexist the making of alternative forms of life; rather, political organising is the crafting of alterontologies’ (ibid: 22). However, contrary to Papadopoulos’ emphasis on emancipatory movements, I claim that alterontologies may also be created by anti-democratic movements. Here, the terms ‘craft’ and ‘caring’, which are important for Papadopoulos, cease to have a self-evident, positive connotation (ibid: 23; see also Papazu, this volume). With inspiration from Laclau and Mouffe, I suggest that the production of the ‘worlds we live in’ is done by various forces, often in agonism (2014). In the clash of alterontologies, their agonistic incompatibility requires that ontological politics are not only crafted and taken care of, but also made part of a struggle.

To put it in Gramsci’s terms, a discussion about democracy requires hegemony to be addressed, as democracy is always fragile and contested. This is not too far from the perspective of Andrew Barry, who argues that ‘politics is not something that should be grounded. On the contrary, a radical democratic politics is one which has to live with the fact that the grounds of politics are not given’ (Barry 2007: 288). The ‘disenchanted’ analysis of democratic processes that I am putting forward in this chapter draws on the idea that democracy emerges as a result of hegemonic struggles (Laclau and Mouffe 2014) and that these struggles have a strong material and ontological dimension (Asdal 2008; Huvila 2011). In this approach, I am indebted to Clegg’s proposition that Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony can be complemented by an STS/ANT-inspired material analysis (Clegg 1989).

I approach democracy as something that constantly needs to be constructed, installed, enacted and stabilised (see also Barry 2007). Accordingly, in this chapter, I do not treat the notion of ‘gender ideology’ simply as a ‘(mis)interpretation or (mis)representation of (de)constructivist feminist and queer theories, which is used as a background story to delegitimise all kinds of progressive policies in the fields of gender and sexuality’ (Mayer and Sauer 2017: 24). My argument is that the emphasis should be shifted from the epistemological level (that is, talking about misinterpretation) – on which Laclau and Mouffe also find themselves – to the ontological level. In the case of the Polish ‘war on gender’ I suggest it is less important who is epistemologically right than what makes ontological might. That is, it is crucial to appreciate how the world is transformed through processes of embodiment and the incorporation of policies into material and ontological infrastructures, and who benefits from these transformations (Latour 2000: 216–235; Oreskes and Conway 2010).

By asking the two sides of the ‘war’, I show how and why the countermovement to the Catholic-conservative ‘anti-gender’ hegemony does not manage to successfully mobilise beyond discursive-symbolic politics. With its protests, it enacts something akin to the radical democratic politics suggested by Laclau and Mouffe, which lacks a powerful material-ontological element. Contrarily, and perhaps surprisingly, the conservatives seem to have recognised the value and potential of an ontological politics grounded in material artefacts that become endowed with great significance and are capable of a wide public reach and influence.

The ‘war on gender’

Before I turn to the case of the ‘conceived child’, a few remarks about the ‘war on gender’ in Poland are called for. This ‘war’ can be traced back to the Polish government’s rejection of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women in April 2012, initiating a three-year period of heated debate (Szczygielska 2019). The most intense phase of the ‘war on gender’ began on 29 December 2013, when an ‘anti-gender’ message was read out during the sermons in all Poland’s parishes. The controversy reached a climax in 2016 with the so-called Black Protest organised by women and feminist activists, the largest mass protest in Poland since the communist collapse (Suchanow 2020). This protest, and subsequent women’s strikes, caused the government to retreat and freeze a restrictive anti-abortion law that was in the works.

During the ‘war on gender’, the notion of an ‘ideology of gender’ became dominant in the Polish public sphere (Duda 2016: 137–408). The notion was circulated through the infrastructure of the Catholic church: in parishes, on the radio station ‘Radio Maryja’ and in public lectures. The number and intensity of these lectures was much greater than the activity of academic gender studies (Duda 2016: 402–403; Graff and Korolczuk 2017: 182–186). ‘Anti-gender’ books were published and circulated in large quantities, printed on good quality paper and in hardcover. Anti-gender activists clearly understood the performativity of books as political objects. For instance, the book ‘Dyktatura gender’ (‘Gender dictatorship’) was published in an encyclopaedia style with a preface by Pope Benedict XVI, on expensive chalk paper and with high quality illustrations and photos.

As observed by Mayer and Sauer (2017), the conservative construction of ‘gender ideology’ ‘is a crucial notion in the establishment of a “chain of equivalences” that links concerns over anti-abortion and women’s rights to anti-LGBTIQ and anti-feminist agendas, as well as to Catholic-conservative, right-wing and neoliberal stances on social policies in general’ (ibid: 24). As such, while the case I discuss in this chapter has to do with abortion, it should be understood in the context of a wider controversy and struggle over gender and sexuality in Poland in recent decades. This is a key site of democratic politics, insofar as the conflict between ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ forces is shaping and transforming Polish society in a struggle for hegemony.

The case of the ‘conceived child’

The concept of a ‘conceived child’ has been present in Poland since the beginning of the 1980s through social campaigns, posters, lectures, articles, radio and television. As a notable example, the movie The Silent Scream – screened during religious lessons and in churches – shows how, during an abortion, the unborn child dies in pain, after which the surgeon throws the dismembered body into a cold metal vessel. As Petchesky (1987: 264) puts it:

The Silent Scream marked a dramatic shift in the contest over abortion imagery. With formidable cunning, it translated the still and by-then stale images of foetus-as-‘baby’ into real-time video, thus (1) giving those images an immediate interface with the electronic media; (2) transforming antiabortion rhetoric from a mainly religious/mystical to a medical/technological mode; and (3) bringing the foetal image ‘to life’.

In Poland, this message was circulated first in catechetical rooms, then in schools. In the movie, the narrator claims that the foetus tries to ‘escape’ from the surgical instrument. The images in the film are slowed down, and then – when the surgeon’s tools are introduced – accelerated to create the impression of anxiety and dramatic escape. The mass reception of this film and its ability to intertwine the anti-abortion narrative with Polish common sense and folklore is evidenced by the creation of the song Ballada o nienarodzinym dziecku [Ballad of the Unborn Child], which paraphrases scenes from the movie (Gencarella 2010). The song is still popular among Catholic youth, scout associations and right-wing anti-abortion movements in Poland.

The ‘conceived child’ narrative redefined the concepts of foetus, conception and child, and became an important reference point in Polish debates on LGBT questions, women’s rights, abortion and the position of the Catholic Church in public life. The installation of the ‘conceived child’ in political imaginaries and common sense in Poland is arguably part of the reason why it was possible for the government to ignore a petition with 1.3 million signatures and pass a 1992 law that was extremely restrictive in comparison to other European standards. Abortion was forbidden and criminalised except when pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life or a result of rape (see also Mayer and Sauer 2017; Hodžić and Štulhofer 2017). In practice, legal abortion is almost banned in Poland.

The corporeality and apparent objectivity of the ‘conceived child’ is sustained by a variety of strategies. Particularly interesting are the plastic figurines distributed among school children by the Catholic organisation Bractwo Małych Stópek (Little Feet’s Brotherhood). An idealised plastic model of a foetus called ‘Jaś’ (‘Johnny’) is presented on their website as follows:

Meet Johnny! Although only 5 cm in size, he is a great defender of life. Thanks to him, many unborn children have been saved from abortion – this educational model makes us aware of the 10-week-old unborn child. Most people who see or hold a faithful model of a child in their own hands in the 10th week of their foetal life change their minds about abortion, among other things. Johnny can also reach your hands and save another unborn life together with you.

Fig. 12.1 ‘Little Johnny’ figurine as an anti-abortion gadget and ‘Fighter for Life’ in an online shop: https://fundacjamalychstopek.pl/product/pakiet-akcji-kup-pieluchy-podaj-jasia-2-jasie/

The materiality of the plastic figurine reinforces the effect that the use of ultrasound scans have had on the anti-abortion movement globally (Burri and Dumit 2008: 307). Now, thanks in part to 3D-printing technology, anti-abortionists can move beyond pictures and change the relationship between children and early pregnancy, turning foetuses into children from the moment of conception.

The flagship product of the Little Feet’s Brotherhood is a Tamagotchi-like mobile phone application called ‘Adoptuj życie’ (Adopt a Life), which allows users to ‘adopt’ and ‘grow’ a nasciturus on their phone. For the purpose of this chapter, I adopted three virtual ‘conceived children’. Two of them are now ‘born’, while the last one is in its fourth week of pregnancy. The app feeds the user daily quasi-biological stories about how your virtually adopted ‘conceived child’ is growing and changing. Furthermore, your ‘conceived child’ will receive your ‘daily prayer’, which you are reminded about through a pop-up message in the app. You can also observe a ‘scan’ of your ‘conceived child’, and even interact with it in various ways (see screenshots below).

Fig. 12.2 The app offers a ‘scan’ of your virtually adopted ‘conceived child’. Different options are available at different stages of development. At 6 weeks, for example, you can listen to the heartbeat by pressing an icon with an ECG/EKG symbol. Screenshots from the app Adopt a Life, with permission from the maker Bartosz Scheuer.

As these screenshots illustrate, the application mimics scientific visualisations. A person adopting a ‘conceived child’ has the impression of participating in a quasi-experiment of growing virtual life. The full name of this unexpectedly intriguing post-human character is ‘a mobile assistant for the spiritual adoption of the conceived child’. By virtue of this object, seemingly traditional, even conservative, political forces are able to use the affordances of modern communications infrastructures for their purposes. In a similar way, anti-gender forces used the popularity of the Pokemon game to produce their own application in which Pikachu is saved from abortion (Neil Datta 2018: 23).

The materiality of the smartphone application also created unexpected effects. The power of the application was paradoxically revealed in a situation where the digital quality of the intervention could have become its greatest weakness. An unsuccessful software update triggered a series of strong reactions from users who felt like a virtual abortion was taking place (quotes from the app store; author’s translation):

ANKA xD: 12 June 2017: The application was great in itself, but I was in the 11th week and lost everything, and I felt some kind of bond with this child. I’ve lost precious time which will not come back, and I hope that somebody will advise you on these unfortunate updates.

Smerfetka Smerf 12 June 2017: The application is great, but after an upgrade, the child has reset itself.

Laura L.: Everything is great, but after an update it has reset itself and this is very unpleasant.

By using the application myself, I became aware of similarities to processes of identity-creation through self-tracking (Bode and Kristensen 2016). By measuring the user’s physical activity, digital self-tracking devices create a virtual doppelgänger with which the user lives, negotiates and enacts their lives with a new awareness of their physicality. In the case of this application, a virtual doppelgänger-foetus, the ideologised political object of a ‘conceived child’, becomes part of the life of the user in a similar way: it lives with the user and negotiates and enacts his or her own life in a certain register. The temporary breakdown of the application revealed how strongly intertwined some users had become with their virtual ‘child’. The unpleasant experience of the unplanned technical failure of the update that caused the ‘conceived children’ to ‘reset themselves’ may have instilled an even greater animosity against abortion in the users who had now, so to speak, lived through ‘something similar’.

In sum, the Catholic Church used the app and the figurine to establish robust political-hegemonic networks, combining new and previously installed political objects, such as the Silent Scream movie from the 1980s. The ‘conceived child’ gained the constancy of a fact – an object strong enough to offer new stability to the anti-abortion agenda.

Material tactics of the pro-abortion movement

The ‘conceived child’ offers an example of how politics can be ontologised through the creation of durable objects which can resist discursive struggles and to which political ideas and projects can be delegated. The sturdiness of the figure is apparent not least in the way the failed app update did not turn the users off the app (or the cause), but instead served to strengthen the users’ anti-abortion sentiments and attachment to the ‘conceived child’ of the app. I suggest that STS scholars, as well as (other) progressive actors, may have something to learn from this seemingly conscious use of ontological politics: namely, how to produce more effective democratic situations by grounding these materially, rather than relying on more traditional symbolic-linguistic politics of resistance.

In this last part of the chapter, I turn to clashes between the pro- and anti-abortion movements, where pro-abortion and feminist activists in Poland attempt to also use material interventions, partly in response to the interventions made by the anti-abortion movement. During a pseudo-scientific lecture with the title ‘Gender as a destruction of a human being and the family’, delivered on 5 December 2013 by a priest and lecturer from the Theology Department at Adam Mickiewicz University, a young man in a golden dress jumped onto a table and started to parody the lecture. At the same time, a group of young women started chanting pro-equality slogans. The ‘boy in a dress’ figure was a reference to previous attempts by the anti-abortion movement to undermine the legitimacy of a programme for more ‘gender-sensitive’ kindergartens in Poland. Undercover police officers quickly suppressed the protesters with tasers, and a riot police squad was called. The events triggered intense media discussions. Three months after the event, the lecturer-priest published a mass-distributed booklet presenting his version of the events with the emblematic ‘boy in a dress’ activist on the cover with the title: Gender exposed – A story of a lecture (Bortkiewicz 2014). Due to asymmetries in access to resources between the pro-abortion activists and the well-established anti-abortion movement, this type of mass-distribution tactics is not available to the protesters. As such, this unequal battle reveals the material power of artefacts as carriers of politics. The anti-abortionist booklet is likely to have had a larger impact than the protest that inspired it.

Another intriguing situation is the series of ‘Black protest’ demonstrations held across the country against the tightening of the anti-abortion law (Bielinska-Kowalewska 2017; Korolczuk 2017; Petö, Grzebalska, and Post 2016; Szczygielska 2019). As mentioned, the protest was fuelled when the Polish Parliament received a draft abortion law which tightened the already restrictive law from 1992. On 3 April 2016, demonstrations against the law were held in big cities all over Poland. In Warsaw, several thousand protesters gathered in front of the parliament. A Facebook group, Dziewuchy dziewuchom (‘Girls for Girls’), launched on 1 April, gained 100,000 fans in ten days (Bielinska-Kowalewska 2017). In the beginning, protestors used various symbols, with the clothes hanger being used as an unpleasant sign of illegal home abortions. However, an unplanned material contribution shaped the ‘Black Protest’ marches on 3 October 2016. On this day, which is now referred to as ‘Czarny Poniedziałek’ (‘Black Monday’), thousands of Polish women went on strike to oppose the proposed legislation for a total ban on abortion (Korolczuk 2016). It happened to be raining, and most protesters carried umbrellas. The media coverage of the gatherings showed a massive number of unfolded black umbrellas, which came to play their own performative role as they became a new symbol of the movement (Sieracka 2018: 25).

The crowd of women with umbrellas, often black due to the colour code of the black protest, took on a performative quality in Polish public life. Photos distributed on social media depicting squares filled with umbrellas were suggestive of the strength of the protest and influenced its later representations. The protests followed the well-recognised dynamics of the materiality of public demonstrations in urban squares (Kowalewski 2018). At the same time, the mass presence of umbrellas redefined this type of expression. The combination of political mobilisation (based partially on the party ‘Razem’) and the mass use of social media (such as the Facebook group ‘Girls for Girls’) created a temporary network that could ‘collide’ with and challenge the hegemonic infrastructure created by the anti-abortion movement and the Catholic Church (Szczygielska 2019). Although initially only by accident, the black umbrella became a symbol of resistance and created an ideological generator so strong that it lent its strength to other feminist initiatives. The umbrella decisively replaced the clothes hanger (‘wieszak’), the symbol disseminated during earlier protests. The clothes hanger, with its direct connection to the procedure of illegal abortion, is a dramatic symbol that can mobilise strong emotions, but it can be problematic for women with more moderate political stances. The use of umbrellas as the primary symbolic object turned out to be much more useful as a less loaded signifier. Women (and the men supporting them), regardless of the spectrum of views on abortion, could literally fit under the umbrella of the protest.

An example of a more direct counter-strategy to the ‘conceived child’ as an ontological generator is the campaign ‘Far From the Hospital’, which focused on combating anti-abortion posters depicting foetuses. Instead of attacking human political opponents, the activists focused on the destabilisation of the political object itself, that is, the ’conceived child’. A similar but more radical (and humorous) campaign is the ‘Make jam at home, do not buy it in a store’, organised by a radical feminist group.

The group creates banners similar to those made by anti-abortion organisations, which depict foetuses after an abortion. On the feminist banners, these visuals are mimicked and replaced by portions of red fruit jam. The action is accompanied by slogans encouraging home-made jam products. This action suggests that activists have recognised pictures co-producing and sustaining the metaphysics of the conceived child in relation to (gory) abortions to be a node stabilising the hegemonic anti-abortion network.

In sum, the emergence of a heterogeneous ontological counter-network began with the power of the umbrellas in the Black Protest, which then lent their power to an initiative fighting photos of foetuses in the public space. The latter initiative combines the strength of a political party, a social movement and media attention to destabilise the political object of ‘the conceived child’, as well as to enrol new allies. However, these examples of counter-reactions are all fairly unplanned, as well as reactive, and as such they do not set the agenda, nor do they constitute a coherent and institutionalised strategy. There remain significant asymmetries in the material politics surrounding abortion in Poland.


My purpose in this chapter has been to explore the material objects of a recent wave of political-ideological struggle taking place in Poland around the issue of abortion. In order for STS scholarship to relate to these unruly and problematic democratic situations, I propose a radicalised version of ontological politics, where the emphasis is placed both on ontological reconfigurations of power and on transforming these in order to strengthen the sort of democratic policies desired by the analyst. This approach can draw on the project of political design outlined by Christian Nold (2018: 60):

I suggest a practice-based notion of ontology from STS offers strong potential for politically transformative design. This approach sees socio-material design as enacting multiple realities. Instead of metaphysical commitments, this presents a pragmatic focus on everyday practices that allow political choices to be made between multiple realities.

Such ‘political choices’ are not readily available in the material-semiotic entanglements of ontological politics (Mol 1999). As the last part of the analysis has shown, ontological politics is dependent both on the availability of resources and on the strength and reach of the networks employed. However, as I have indicated in this chapter, Catholic-conservative forces in Poland are currently deploying significant and widespread material-political interventions, including 3D-printed plastic figurines of foetuses accompanied by smartphone apps. The counter-struggles by the women’s movement are loosely assembled, and although they deploy artefacts such as umbrellas and banners, these continue to work more on the conventional symbolic level of social movement politics, as described by Laclau and Mouffe, allowing the Catholic-conservative forces a somewhat surprising role as the more ‘technologically enhanced’ actor. To act in relation to this kind of onto-hegemonic politics, STS scholars, as well as emancipatory movements, must sensitise themselves to ontological political situations and explore the political subjectivities associated with them in order to contribute more effectively to shaping material realities that make their goals and values achievable.


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