Threatening sex educators with jail may seem extreme – but it seems Poland’s ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party is willing to go there to cement power by generating fear and misinformation.
Fueling intolerance and targeting rights activists, an independent judiciary, and a free press have become hallmarks of PiS since the party gained power in 2015, including in the run-up to October’s parliamentary elections. A bill on sex education, approved by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, on Wednesday would take this a dangerous step further. It would amend the penal code to criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” In effect, sex educators, teachers, authors, and organizations providing information on reproductive health and sexuality could face a three-year prison sentence.
Last year, sex educators and LGBT and women’s rights activists told me about programs that had already been defunded, and the growing hostility directed against them. Right-wing groups in Poland have run smear campaigns, including accusing sex educators of promoting “depravity.” PiS’s actions and language have embolded them. In March 2019, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński openly criticized Warsaw’s mayor for supporting teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Educators have expressed fear about teaching. “Several times I’ve met someone and told them I’m a sex educator and they turn cold, keeping me at a distance because they are afraid of being harmed by knowing me,” one sex educator told me.
Work led by sex educators is crucial in a country where official policy means children rarely learn about their own bodies or intimate relationships. Poland’s “Preparation for Family Life” curriculum strays far from international standards on comprehensive sexuality education. Instead, it spreads misinformation, perpetuates harmful stereotypes about gender roles and sexuality, and promotes an anti-choice and anti-LGBT agenda.
A yet-to-be-established parliamentary commission will be tasked to work on the newly approved bill. Its recommendation to the Sejm should be unequivocal: the bill should be scrapped entirely.
As international bodies – including the World Health Organization and Council of Europe have emphasized – accurate, inclusive sexuality education is essential to prevent sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reduce unwanted pregnancy and maternal mortality, and help children grow up to lead healthy, safe, and productive lives. Parliamentarians should remember that access to health care, including reproductive healthcare information, is a human right.