At the Heart of Poland

Wera Bet, “Have a Rainbow Day”, 24x22 cm, 2018

Although we can begin the history of family from any point of time, and at any latitude, it will never be a universal history – regardless of our efforts and belief in the universal nature of Latin-Christian values. Just as the idea of “nuclear family” is incomprehensible to the peoples of the Munduruku tribe, so do the Munduruku’s tribe’s separation of male and familial houses remain ambiguous and irrelevant to the [Western] idea of family.

Wera Bet, “Historia rodziny”, 24x44 cm, 2019–2022

So, the history of the family as it is recognised by the majority of tribes of the Global North may as well begin in September 1973, when Doris del Zio walks into New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. Doris has a daughter from her first marriage and is now married to John del Zio, with whom she is together – childless – for twelve years. For Doris and John, “family” means a bond of blood that would be manifested by the birth of their common child. That final biological seal, whose necessary condition is getting pregnant. This cannot happen, because Doris has an obstructed fallopian tube. So, when she hears about the possibility of undergoing an experimental treatment called “in vitro,” she decides to trust the medical duo, doctors Landrum Shettles and William Sweeney. Doris agrees to have her eggs removed and inseminated with John’s sperm, and wait for the result. This – as all parties believe will be the case – will be an embryo produced outside of Doris’ body. Perhaps this embryo will soon grow to be Doris and John’s daughter or son.

As Doris prepares for the procedure, the cards that will set the tone of debate around the idea of family in the coming decades – among them, children’s rights and new scholarship on childhood, anti-natalism and conscious childlessness, feminist critiques of assisted reproduction methods, and feminist defences of the right to reproduce – have not been yet dealt. The US is still coming to terms with the recent Roe v. Wade abortion battle, which concluded in early 1973. Just five years earlier, David Schneider had published American Kinship, the flagship position on family anthropology. In it, he put forward a thesis that has long been obvious to the del Zios – in American culture, blood is the basic symbol of kinship, and it is blood ties, and not family structure, that determine “diffuse, enduring solidarity” (Schneider 1968).

Wera Bet, “Probówki z płynem pęcherzykowym Doris”, 45x60 cm, 2022

So, as John del Zio rides a taxi to the hospital, clutching Doris’ follicular fluid to pass on to Shettles for further lab work, entirely unrelated histories and dramas are unfolding. Their random character seems rather interesting to me. For example, in 1973, Lesley Brown, the future mother of the first child born through IVF, is still desperately trying to get pregnant. In Poland, at that time, there are approximately 380 orphanages, in which the so-called ‘social orphans’ increasingly outnumber natural orphans (Domańska 2009). These are large institutions housing tens, sometimes hundreds of children, often plagued by violence. In Ireland, there are still Mother and Baby Homes run by religious congregations, to which the Magdalene Laundries are adjacent – the last will shut its doors in 1984, and the final home for unmarried pregnant women in 1990. Soon after, the Irish will begin to discover the mass graves of children and women held hostage in these ‘homes’ (McCormick et al. 2021). Meanwhile, in 1973, New York Social Services quietly conducts a silent, experimental project of matching non-heteronormative teenagers and non-heteronormative foster families – entirely against the law, but in a wild recognition, entirely ahead of its times, that perhaps the activities of social services should be guided by the needs of children, rather than adults (Waters 2021). Thanks to the theory of relatedness, the anthropology of kinship will take this view many years later, pointing out that instead of thinking about an arbitrary description of kinship systems and seeking answers in ties of blood ensuring “enduring solidarity”, it might be quite an interesting idea to ask people what family is to them, and how they define it (Carsten 2000). To the amazement of many of us – and some still don’t feel ready to come to terms with this conclusion – in the narratives of its members, the family often turns out to have little to do with kinship, but rather, with relationships and emotional reciprocity. In Poland, this was described well by Agata Stanisz (Stanisz 2014).

The reason most people have never heard of Doris del Zio, but presumably know that Louise Joy Brown turned out to be the “miracle baby” and the first person born through IVF (Fishel 2008), is that Shettles and Sweeney never informed the hospital bioethics committee of their venture, much less obtained their permission. Because of that, several hours after Doris’ eggs were fused with John’s sperm, Raymond Vande Wiele, Shettles’ boss, stepped in and literally poured the del Zios’ parental hopes and the pioneering dreams of the ambitious medical duo down the drain.

Wera Bet, “Krew jest aksjologicznie ważna”, 45x60 cm, 2022

In 2022, when the majority of Poles are able to recognize the main arguments in the discussion about assisted reproduction (and, what is more, have learned to speak about “conceived life” and “the rights of the unborn child”), Vande Wiele’s recklessness seems incomprehensible and quite frightening. Did he check whether Doris and John’s gametes merged, and an embryo was formed? No. What exactly did he pour down the drain? Nobody knows. We have to live with the same uncertainty that accompanied Doris and John del Zio for the rest of their lives – Vande Wiele never checked the sample. Eventually, in 1978, jurors valued Doris’ uncertainty at $50,000 and John’s at $3 in damages (Powledge 1978).

At the same time, we are now able to comprehend – without horror – that over seventy thousand children in Poland are growing up outside their biological families because they experienced abuse, or a threat to life or health (Information of the Council of Ministers 2019). This abuse was most likely inflicted by their closest relatives. The over-representation of non-heterosexual children in foster care is also an internationally accepted phenomenon, although it indirectly shows that, in many families, blood ties fail to guarantee protection when the child comes out as non-heteronormative (Fish et al. 2019). Mass graves in Ireland do not arouse ethical ambivalence, since the perpetrators of abuse were strangers. Despite this, most women were placed in Magdalene Laundry after being reported or pressured by their own families (Department of Justice 2013).

Wera Bet, “Dom, dom dziewczynek, dom chłopców, 45x60 cm, 2022

Jasiek's drawing

Axiologically, blood is important. And yet, simultaneously, blood has no axiological meaning. Blood is important when we associate it with the hopes and intentions of intimacy, the on-going survival of nations and national values, or as a tool to wield biopower. Blood is not the most important element in the narration of nine-year-old Jasiek captioning a drawing depicting a boy climbing stairs: “When I come home from school, I am afraid to go because there is always harm” [in the original, misspelt].1 Blood is also disturbing in the drawing by twelve-year-old Julia entitled “The best day of my life” and depicting the funeral of her biological mother (a mother who, as Julia’s foster mother informs me, is still very much alive). When Julia lived with her, she’d rarely undress in PE classes – her bruised back would surely raise questions from her teachers. Sororate, Crow-Omaha system and art. 92 of Poland’s Family and Guardianship Code, which states that “a child remains subject to parental authority until the age of 18″ (emphasis by the author) are – for many children from difficult backgrounds (Purvis et al. 2013) – just empty terms. They refer to the imaginaries of adults, rather than the embodied experiences of children [who are now] in foster care: neglect, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse taking place at “the heart of Poland”, that is – within the traditional family – as described by Patryk Jaki, the then head of the Autonomy of the Family and Family Life commission (Sobczak 2016).

Wera Bet, “Bije serce Polski”, 24x22 cm, 2021

Wera Bet, “Ja i Koniec”, 45x60 cm, 2022

The further we descend the ranks of the hierarchy of social importance, the more we can pay attention to children’s micro-narratives, and what is deemed unimportant and recognized by adultism. More often than not, it turns out that the category of the protective shield of blood, as the central value and fundament of the family, can be embarrassingly absent. Although, of course, you can base the plot of seven volumes of Harry Potter on it.

Anna Krawczak is a Member of the Interdisciplinary Childhood Research Team of IEiAK UW, PhD student at the Institute of Polish Culture, former long-time president of the Association for Infertility Treatment and Support for Adoption Our Stork, member of the Coalition for Family Foster Care. Author of the book “In vitro – without fear, without ideology” and numerous publications in the field of anthropology of kinship and medicine. She was an external adviser to the WHO in the area of infertility. Privately, an adoptive mother, a surrogate mother, and a mother thanks to new reproductive technologies.

Wera Bet is an artist, graduate of the University of Arts in Poznan, currently lives and works in Berlin. She perceives the world cognitively, unpacking its hidden parabolic meanings. She pays a lot of attention to detail, friendship and music.


1 Children’s accounts and drawings to which I refer were collected by me as part of the project “Adoption as a process, experience and institution. An anthropological [erspective” supervised by Dr Ewa Maciejewska Mroczek, financed by the National Science Centre, grant no. 2017/27/B/.


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