Culture of Life
Poland’s Pro-Life Struggles Are Paying Off
But leaders say fight is far from over
BY Jonathan Luxmoore
December 12-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 12/12/98 at 1:00 PM
WARSAW, Poland—Few pro-life campaigners could fail to admire Ewa Kowalewska.
Her work began in the early 1970s, when she was a member of Gdansk's Catholic Students Association. But it took off in 1989, with the collapse of communist rule, when she and her husband began issuing a whole newspaper, Voice for Life, on desktop equipment from their own apartment.
It was thanks to persistence from people like Ewa that a new Polish law was passed in 1993, which defied the trend in most democratic countries by tightening curbs on abortion. Today, as European head of the U.S.-based Human Life International, Ewa has taken her campaign further afield to neighboring post-communist countries. But it's with the pro-life cause at home that she's remained most preoccupied.
In November, that campaign received a boost when new government statistics confirmed that abortions were now a comparatively marginal occur-rence in Poland. But Ewa admits she's far from satisfied.
“This is the only country where the International Planned Parenthood Federation was prevented from pursuing its program by public vote,” Kowalewska told the Register. “But public opinion doesn't stand still, and we're under relentless pressure from a one-sided media. We still have to convince society that defending values is necessary and possible.”
Enacted in 1993, Poland's “Law on Family Planning, Defense of the Fetus and Acceptance of Pregnancy Terminations” restricted abortion “rights” to cases where a woman's “life or health” was endangered, when “very serious and irreparable fetal damage” was diagnosed, or when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
It threatened two-year jail terms for doctors aborting illegally, but didn't prescribe penalties for mothers. Within a year, it had cut registered abortions to just 777 nationwide in a population of 38 million, compared to 11,640 in 1992 and 30,878 in 1991.
In October 1996, despite 4 million protest letters, the law was amended by ex-communist parliamentarians from Poland's Democratic Left Alliance to allow abortions for women facing “burdensome living conditions or a difficult personal situation.”
However, the move was invalidated in May 1997 by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled that the right to life, enshrined in the constitution's Article 13, must predominate over “social considerations.”
When the court judgment was voted into law by Poland's Sejm lower house the following December, members of the co-governing Solidarity Election Action (AWS) coalition responded with a standing ovation. Opponents have pledged to re-liberalize the law, while Catholic campaigners have said they'll demand even tighter restrictions on rape-case abortions and prenatal tests. So far, though, neither side has mustered enough support.
“The ruling coalition is too fragile internally to risk new legislation,” explained Bishop Stanislaw Stefanek of Lomza, who chairs the Polish Church's Family Commission. “Until some new consensus emerges in Parliament, our pressure has to be applied socially, through family care and education.”
For now, though, the latest November data suggest the law has had a dramatic impact. The government report said registered abortions had risen to 3,047 in 1997, after the law's short-lived liberalization, of which 2,524 were carried out under the reinstated “social clause.”
A further 407 were conducted to protect the woman's “life or health,” while 107 were authorized because of “very serious and irreparable fetal damage,” and seven in cases of rape or incest.
However, the overall number was expected to fall again in 1998, following the law's re-tightening last December.
Pro-lifers say the Polish situation refutes pro-abortion arguments usually used abroad. They insist the restrictions have encouraged sexual responsibility, and have urged people to form their opinions “on facts rather than emotions.”
In October 1996, despite 4 million protest letters, the law was amended by ex-communist parliamentarians from Poland's Democratic Left Alliance to allow abortions for women facing ‘burdensome living conditions or a difficult personal situation.’
Women's Health Improving
The law hasn't fueled a population explosion. Though higher than in neighboring countries, Poland's birthrate has been falling steadily for more than a decade. There were 413,000 live births in 1997, compared to 546,000 in 1990.
Nor has the law produced a battery of unwanted babies. The population of homes for small children and single mothers has also been falling steadily, and police say there's been no increase in child murders. Though 252 babies were abandoned by their mothers in 1993, there have been no subsequent figures published.
The law hasn't worsened women's health. On the contrary, it's actually improving. The number of miscarriages has dropped yearly, from 60,000 in 1990 to 44,000 in 1997. Pregnancy complications caused three deaths nationwide in 1993; but there weren't any recorded in later years.
The law hasn't caused an upsurge in expensive back-street abortions. Only 40 investigations were launched in 1997 into suspected illegal abortions, of which 28 were discontinued and just one led to a conviction. Pro-lifers concede more abortions are perpetrated than the official figures suggest. But that was true in the early 1990s too, when doctors often kept them secret to avoid taxes and social stigma. Claims that thousands of abortions are being perpetrated on the quiet, pro-lifers say, are just “propaganda.”
The law hasn't flouted public wishes. In 1993, 42% of Poles rejected the idea of abortion on demand. The figure rose to 55% within two years of the law's adoption. And even when the “social clause” was reintroduced in 1996, barely 2,500 women chose to use it. This suggests the law and campaign surrounding it have made abortion socially unacceptable, despite the severe pressures of insolvency and moral relativism.
Birthrate Still Low
“The opinion trends are quite clear—and this is an achievement of our campaign,” said Bishop Stefanek, the family expert. “Of course, arguments are still put forward that the fetus isn't fully developed and we haven't sufficiently tackled our social problems. But not even the law's opponents any longer question our fundamental thesis—that the fetus is a living child.”
Despite this, Bishop Stefanek thinks there's a long way to go. The Polish birthrate decline is deeply worrying, especially since it's been accompanied by a fall in marriages. Young married couples wanting a stable family, Bishop Stefanek points out, must “swim against the current” of self-gratification that's flooded into Poland from the West, and made the child a “competitor in consumption.”
“The liberal thinking that predominates here treats the citizen as no more than an economic unit, and views family obligations as a private matter of no concern to society,” the bishop told the Register. “These loud, mischievous illusions pose the most dangerous threat to Poland's future, since they are determining practical policies.”
Most abortions were conducted in better-off households before the 1993 restrictions, according to research data, suggesting abortion levels, at least in Poland, can't be related directly to poverty and lack of resources.
But with 19% of Polish citizens currently living below the poverty line, according to a mid-October UN survey, measures to encourage family life are clearly needed. Besides restricting abortions, the 1993 law required the Polish authorities to provide “all necessary social, medical, legal and material help” for pregnant women and single mothers.
Later Polish governments failed to meet this obligation. But when the AWS was elected in September 1997, its platform included a “pro-family tax policy” and drew heavily on the Vatican's Family Rights Charter.
Yet even the AWS has fallen short on its promises. In November, AWS parliamentarians urged measures to promote three-child families, and inculcate “family responsibilities” when sex-education courses are launched at Polish schools this January.
However, a “pro-family policy” for 1999 was voted down in favor of a system of family supplements. That leaves Polish citizens paying the same tax rate, however many children they have.
Pro-lifers blame the AWS' liberal coalition partner, the Freedom Union (UW). Its leader, Leszek Balcerowicz, pioneered Poland's post-1989 “shock therapy” market reforms, and is now finance minister again. Though the AWS still insists a “pro-family policy” is key to its program, Balcerowicz has blocked this, citing systemic problems and lack of funds. Despite everything, Bishop Stefanek thinks pro-life campaigners can learn something from the Polish experience.
“For one thing, voices in defense of the human being are now being raised by a broad panorama of social groups,” the bishop said. “For another, the debate has deepened. People are talking about the untouchable value of the person as a principle of democracy. In place of the economic, social, and administrative arguments of the past, they're using ethical, theological, and anthropological reasoning.”
Ewa Kowalewska agrees, but is determined not to be complacent. When her Human Life International office staged a workshop in mid-December, it drew 40 pro-life campaigners from Eastern Europe—including, for the first time, Muslim gynecologists from Russia.
But urgent work is still needed, Kowalewska thinks, to ensure the latest Polish regulations are accepted by society, and to withstand the pressure being exerted against them from international agencies and pharmaceutical companies. After a quarter-century's pro-life campaigning, Ewa admits she's tired.
“We've shown other countries it's possible to do something, by creating a law which protects most children,” the campaigner told the Register. “But this kind of success needs permanent defending. After such a long confrontation, society has clearly had enough. But we have to go on campaigning, as social, economic, and political conditions evolve.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.
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