Reproductive practices under state socialism

Contraception and abortion are highly contentious topics in contemporary Poland. A close examination of how these issues were dealt with in the recent past sheds new light on the history of Polish state-socialism, the democratic transition and current debates on reproductive rights in Poland.

Agata Ignaciuk

Birth control cultures in Poland, 1945-1989 is the first systematic study of the history of contraception and abortion in Poland during the whole state-socialist period. It adds to the dynamically developing scholarship examining the history of the 1956 Polish abortion law, family planning activism and its international entanglements, biopolitics and population policies and sexual expertise in post-War Poland. It also broadens the incipient field of social history of medicine and health in Poland and East Central Europe.

We studied ways in which the Party-State, on one hand, and the Roman Catholic Church on the other, were trying to convince people — directly or through specific organisations funded for that purpose — to have more or fewer children. We examined how the population policies these institutions promoted were communicated and how they changed over time, looking for discrepancies and meeting points between them. We also explored the ways in which expert knowledge on contraception and abortion was created and popularized, and how it inserted itself in international scientific debates. Finally, we investigated Polish men’s and women’s knowledge and experiences related to birth control.

In our research, we used a wide range of sources. We examined the archives of the Society for Family Development, the state-sponsored family planning organisation, as well as archival material from the Department of the Chaplaincy of Families of the Metropolitan Curia in Krakow. We carried out a systematic study of popular medical literature in Poland published between the late 1950s and late 1980s, and analysed the coverage on abortion and contraception in the leading professional journal for gynaecology, Ginekologia Polska, during this period. We also studied magazines for women and the general press as well as documentaries on contraception and health produced by the Educational Film Studio in Łódź. Furthermore, we conducted oral history interviews with Polish women and men in which we enquired about their experiences with planning their families before 1989.

We showed how popular medical publications on contraception put forward a particular vision of what were women’s and men’s roles in family planning. We explained the transnational influences in the campaign of production and dissemination of diaphragms and spermicides in Poland during the late 1950s and the 1960s, and how their availability and quality fluctuated in the centrally planned economy. We demonstrated how expert discussion on abortion in Poland shifted from framing it as a public health solution to a public health problem, and analysed ways in which state-sponsored and Catholic family planning ‘systems’ were implemented and how they engaged in dialogue with each other.

Finally, we put the stigmatisation of abortion, disseminated through both state-sponsored and Catholic discourses between the late 1950s and late 1980s, in dialogue with women’s narratives of abortion to conclude that for many women, abortion was a pragmatic birth control option.

Our research has advanced the study of population policies, expert and popular knowledge about contraception and ‘ordinary’ people’s reproductive practices under state socialism, contributing to a more nuanced history of this period in Polish history.

How did you benefit from the POLONEZ fellowship?

The POLONEZ fellowship has been fundamental for the development of my professional career. I was awarded the fellowship in 2017, less than two years after completing my PhD. In addition to having the opportunity to carry out my first independent research project — a dream project indeed — I was able to strengthen and expand my professional networks. Thanks to the POLONEZ fellowship, I was able to secure a tenure-track position in history of medicine at my target institution. I also benefited from the project personally. Being able to conduct a 2-year research project in Poland, where I am from, after almost a decade spent abroad, has enabled me to reconnect with my family and friends. My daughter, who moved with me for the duration of the grant, has highly improved her command of Polish, which is great too!


Dr Agata Ignaciuk holds an MA degree in international studies (University of Łódź) and an Erasmus Mundus Joint European MA in Women’s and Gender Studies (University of Granada/ University of Bologna). She completed her PhD in women’s studies and history of medicine in 2015 at the University of Granada. Since 2010, her research has revolved around the transnational history of reproduction and contraception, and the history of women and gender in Spain and Poland.