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From the 13th annual "March for life" in Prague.

Conference reports Parental Movements with Disparate Agendas

There were two disparate and somehow polemic tendencies, or overarching discourses, among the parental movements presented at the workshop on Södertörn University in May 2014. The first was the nationalist discourse, whilst the other predominated discourse was concentrated on promoting new norms in parenting.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 4 2014, p 60
Published on on januari 21, 2015

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Social movements have been the drivers behind the major societal changes of the last few decades in Central and Eastern Europe. This claim was made at the opening of the research workshop on “Parental Movements: The Politicization of Motherhood and Fatherhood in Central and Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet Region”. The presentations covered various social movements in a number of post-socialist countries. The label “parental movements” thus included parents’ movements against child vaccination, struggles to influence policy and public opinion while strengthening parents’ rights, mothers’ movements for the rights of disabled children, fathers’ movements for their rights in custody disputes, and future parents’ movements for the right to have children and the right to medical treatment.

The workshop’s general purpose was to draw attention to the existence of such movements, given the lacunae in the literature on social movements in the area, and given social and political researchers’ concentration on institutions and political parties, with the resulting neglect of research on social movements and their influence on social change. Another condition constraining the field identified by the workshop organizers, Elżbieta Korolczuk and Katalin Fábián, was the conceptual obstacles posed by the current understanding of civil society and social mobilizations in Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region. This understanding is characterized by normative frameworks, quantitative approaches, and a focus on specific organizational forms manifest in elements of civil society, and discourages researchers from looking at the networks of loosely connected activist groups working on issues related to parenthood. Existing studies in this field have been case studies, and the aim of the workshop was to gather them together and see what theoretical developments can be drawn from the many cases presented.

Parental Movements with Conservative Values

It was pointed out that conservative values are sometimes the basis of parental movements in the region. The movements promise to secure the survival of the nation by propagating conservative family values in the face of a demographic crisis going on in several countries in the area. The parental movement in Russia, one of these conservative forces, was a grassroots movement that emerged as a moral reaction to sexualized media and sex education, which were interpreted as coming from the West. As the Russian parental movement emerged, around 2010, its anti-Western rhetoric was toned down and its main argument was the concern for traditional and family values, which were degenerating in contemporary Russia due to internal (and to a lesser extent, the external) flaws of the Russian system. The focus of the movement was mainly on the demographic decline of the country, and issues such as parenthood, gender equality, children’s rights, and motherhood were put aside in favor of the issues of traditional Russian family values and Russian family policy.

The same traditionalist and nationalist focus of parental movements was found in the Ukrainian case presented. The movement in Ukraine also stressed the demographic situation (declining birthrates, abortion rates, and depopulation) as a threat to the Ukrainian nation. The foremost task of the parental movement was to impede this development by propagating the model of the two-parent family with children as a norm, excluding childless couples and single parents from the definition of family. Moreover, the movement identified the European Union, homosexuality and LGBTQ rights as major threats to the proliferation of traditional families and to the nation’s survival, and described its main task as overcoming the moral crisis of Ukrainian society by strengthening traditional spiritual values.

The traditionalist perspective of parental movements in the post-socialist region was further reflected in the Czech fathers’ movement, which openly criticized the legal system as “feminist”, putting the rights of women before those of men, especially fathers. The focus of the fathers’ mobilization in the Czech Republic was almost solely on the issues of divorce and custody, and it encountered some difficulties in framing its argument convincingly: activists were challenging a norm by presenting fathers as capable of caring for their children, and at the same time arguing for conservative gender roles and limited rights for women.

Mobilizations for Reproductive Rights

In the primarily conservative and traditionalist context surrounding parental issues, the arguments brought forward by future or potential parents encounter various difficulties. Access to and the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) is a subject of public debate in many post-socialist countries, and from the point of view of those who would use such medical treatments, the arguments revolve around establishing the legitimacy of their claims. In Poland, the stigmatization of children born after in-vitro fertilization (IVF) was widespread, and included characterizations of IVF children as “monsters” and the thesis that embryos are unborn citizens with rights and hence the freezing of numerous embryos as part of IVF is immoral. Polish parental organizations struggling for rights to ART treatments faced a powerful discourse led by politicians and representatives of the Catholic Church, and strategically shifted the focus of their arguments to the question of citizenship, discussing their rights as patients or citizens in need of medical treatment. At the same time, the social movement avoided sensitive questions of abortion, the responsibility for reproduction placed on female bodies, and connections to sexuality, and focused on the more general question of civil rights: Who is entitled to a specific medical treatment?

The Bulgarian mobilization around fertility and the right to ART treatments frames its claims in a similar way, legitimating its activity with arguments that its members deserve parenthood, and turning the focus away from the individual to a public and national perspective. The argument was based on a division of parents into those who do and those who do not deserve to be parents. Parents with reproductive problems looking for a solution in ART treatment were construed as well-educated, responsible citizens, and the children of such parents were described as extraordinarily well cared for and as having better upbringings than average children. The undeserving parents were presented as the irresponsible ones, procreating limitlessly and depending on public resources. The Bulgarian parental movement, like the conservative parental movements of Russia and Ukraine, showed a concern for the purity and survival of the nation. Ethnic minorities were represented as being among the undeserving parents, and their procreation as a drain on resources and a threat to the nation. The issue of access to ART treatment for willing, wealthy, and responsible Bulgarians was raised in this light.

Patriarchal Approaches to the Past and the Development of New Norms

Another type of parental movement was based mainly on a division construed between parental practices in the past and in the present. Such movements presented new notions of parenthood and parental practices and promoted a more natural and humane approach to the relation between parents and children. The past was associated with authoritarian practices in medicine and health care. Movements of this kind suggest alternative approaches to the care of disabled children, childbirth, and other health practices. Among these mobilizations is the Czech movement advocating natural birth and limitations on medication and intervention in childbirth. One of the driving forces behind this particular movement was the desire to change the “socialist approach” in obstetric practices, which was seen as inhumane, paternalistic, and patriarchal. The fundamental argument was one of the right to civilized care in childbirth; having broader alternatives for child-bearing women was perceived as a civil right.

Arguments about health and civil rights were also advanced by the same Czech movement in opposition to children’s free vaccination programs. This parental movement challenged the dominant notion of responsible parenting, and the authority of medical experts, stressing that the critical assessment of such medical programs and the assessment of risks involved in vaccination is the parents’ responsibility. A new moral stance was developed based on the individual’s responsibility for his or her health, opposing the authority of biomedical knowledge.

Dominant knowledge and practices in health care were also opposed by parental movements in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which revolved around the rights of disabled children and their parents. These parental movements focused on making the system of care for disabled persons more humane, and at the same time changing attitudes towards persons with disabilities. Such movements have been active in the area since the Baltic states declared their independence 25 years ago, and have developed positions in society where they are able to exert influence on the political process and issues of services to persons with disabilities. Opposing stereotypical views of individuals with disabilities, parental movements in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have promoted human rights, dignity, and the integration of persons with disabilities into the surrounding society, and have become important and influential parts of the civil society in the three countries.

Another example of new norms being developed in the post-Soviet area was the activism of fathers in “daddy schools” in northwestern Russia. This activism was seen as a factor in the change of fatherhood norms in the region. One important strategy of these father-activists was to maintain good relations with maternity care facilities and mothers’ groups, as well as to the state and local authorities. Consequently, the activists avoided taking an oppositional or conservative stance. Their focus was to create a new norm of fatherhood in which fathers take a more active role in their children’s upbringing and care. The activists in the daddy schools, although few, have had some considerable successes in the region recently, and regional legislation on family policy has recognized the importance of daddy schools in the future development of the area.

Two Divisive Discourses

The activity of social movements is a great indicator of the social, economic, and political challenges in a given society. Moreover, the activity of social movements based on parental identities in Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region has not been sufficiently researched in the past, and an illumination and comparison of such movements provides an important insight into ongoing processes in the ideologies, practices, and policies related to parenting in the area. Among the parental movements presented at the workshop there were two disparate and somehow polemic tendencies, or overarching discourses. The first was the nationalist discourse, in which the interests of the nation are more important than those of parents and particularly women. The survival of a “pure” nation is the main interest endangered by the aging population and declining birth numbers. Movements following this discourse therefore argued for conservative values in parenthood and family life, and in particular for the moral responsibility of women to have more children and thus prevent the demographic decline. Questions of gender equality, gender roles, women’s rights, heteronormativity, and children’s rights are omitted as threats to the more important cause of securing the survival of the nation. Moreover, a troubling tendency of these movements was to associate the issues of women’s, children’s, and sexual minorities’ rights with “the West” and typically “Western” values, portraying them as a threat to the given nation’s traditional family values.

The other predominant discourse among these parental movements was contrary in its content to the conservative, traditionalist, and nationalist values promoted by some of the movements in this area. Instead of stressing conservative values, it concentrated on promoting new norms in parenting. New norms of fatherhood, new norms of the care and rights of disabled children, new norms of obstetric care, and new norms and assessments of medical knowledge were developed and in some cases resulted in more or less widespread new practices. Movements fighting for reproductive rights used arguments about citizenship and aimed to broaden the norm of civil rights to encompass the medical treatment of infertility. Many of the arguments brought up by these norm-challenging movements were focused on changing norms and practices that had been dominant in the past, and bringing issues that were previously private into the public sphere and turning them into political issues.

NOTE: The workshop was held at CBEES by Södertörn University in May 2014.