Can We Overcome the Hypocrisy of Polish Consciences?

After 50 years, the slogans of the Sexual Revolution, along with its cultural baggage, have reached Poland.

A demonstrator lights a flare as he takes part in a pro-abortion protest in central Warsaw on Nov. 18.
A demonstrator lights a flare as he takes part in a pro-abortion protest in central Warsaw on Nov. 18. (photo: WOJTEK RADWANSKI / AFP via Getty Images)

The year 2020 was the Year of St. John Paul II, as well as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, where the newborn Polish state drove back a Bolshevik onslaught on Europe. These anniversaries occurred alongside the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, not all of which were connected to growing challenges in medicine and economics.

After 50 years, the slogans of the Sexual Revolution, along with its cultural baggage, reached this country, after having rolled through many countries on both sides of the Atlantic. 


Dilemmas and Compromises

Poland once again faces a debate over abortion and the protection of unborn life after conception. The “Act of January 7, 1993 on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Embryo and the Conditions Permitting Abortion,” along with subsequent amendments, had been regarded for many years as an “abortion compromise.” 

The act permitted abortion by a doctor in cases when (1) pregnancy constituted a threat to the life or health of the mother; (2) prenatal testing or other premises indicated a great probability of a serious and irreversible handicap on the part of the embryo or of an incurable disease threatening the embryo’s life; or (3) there was justified suspicion that the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act (i.e., rape or incest).

It should be noted that the law was amended in 1996 to allow abortion when a pregnant woman found herself in difficult socio-economic circumstances or a difficult personal situation. That basis was, however, struck down by the Constitutional Tribunal in 1997. 

In 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal addressed the so-called “eugenic premise’” of the Act, which many Polish pro-life circles had been focusing on for years. It handed down a decision on Oct. 22, 2020, striking down as unconstitutional that part of the Act that said abortion was legally permitted if “prenatal testing or other medical premises indicated a great probability of the embryo’s serious and irreversible retardation or of an incurable disease threatening his life.” 

The decision provoked numerous controversial protests across Poland. Under the name of the “Women’s Strike,” they have been organized for several weeks in both larger and smaller cities throughout Poland. It should be noted that, although the stipulated time has passed, the Tribunal’s opinion and decision has not yet been published in the official legal journals. 

Seeking to calm social tensions, on Oct. 30 President Andrzej Duda submitted a proposal to amend the 1993 Act that would “introduce new bases which restore the possibility of abortion in a manner consistent with the Constitution of the Republic of Poland in the case of the presence of a lethal defect when prenatal testing or other medical premises indicate a high probability that the child will be born dead or encumbered by an incurable disease or defect that leads surely and directly to the child’s death, regardless of the application of therapeutic efforts.”

The proposal has not, however, met with support from either pro-life circles, who are tending toward the comprehensive protection of life in Poland, or from those engaged in street protests, who are moving in a totally opposite direction toward the total legalization of abortion-on-demand in all forms — surgical and pharmaceutical.


A Difficult Assessment of a Difficult Solution

The President’s proposal has enabled new discussions while also raising many questions about the ethical aspects of permitting abortion. One should first note the positive aspects of the proposal, which are not very numerous. In his message, the Polish president expressed the conviction that the state “should afford particular protection to the family and to single mothers raising children with handicaps.” It should also designate means of “assuring such persons with financial, medical, psychological and legal assistance.” That said, the proposal does not, however, contain concrete legal solutions in this respect, which all sides of this controversy expected.

In support of the proposal is the claim that the change “restores the essence of the 1993 abortion compromise” while “in accord with the decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal.”

One should look, however, not just at the juridical but the ethical sides of the proposed solution. In the light of Catholic ethics, every human being deserves respect and protection from the moment of conception. “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC 2270).

Protection of the life of an unborn child is today one of the most important civilizational tasks from which one cannot escape nor should downplay. That is why recent popes have condemned abortion itself as well as formal cooperation with it. The ancient texts of Christianity confirmed that “direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2271). 

Moral theology has, of course, acknowledged situations in which the loss of a pregnancy was the undesired result of a therapeutic procedure. In the New Charter for Health Care Workers (2016) of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance to the Health Care Workers we can find a clarification, based on the teaching of Pius XII:

Any form of direct abortion is ethically illegitimate inasmuch as it is an intrinsically reprehensible act. When abortion is neither intended nor willed but follows as a foreseen consequence of a therapeutic act that is inescapably necessary for the health of the mother, this may be morally legitimate. In such a case, the abortion is the indirect consequence of an act that in itself is not a direct abortion (n. 54).

Such dramatic but rare decisions frequently involve not just the family of the conceived child and the medical world, but many other persons concerned about human life as well. The presidential proposal does not appear to deal with these kinds of acts. 

A second perspective, in the light of which we should consider the Polish president’s proposal, is the question of evaluating a legislator’s possibilities regarding the protection of human life. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, St. John Paul II explicitly reminds us that “in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it” (n. 73).

At the same time, however, he also noted that there could exist such situations in which parliamentarians stand before the possibility of limiting the bad effects of an abortion law in effect. In such a case, we read that “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality” (n. 73).

In light of the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church about the protection of unborn life cited above, the Polish president’s proposal to allow for abortion in cases of lethal defects does not appear to be a solution worthy of support. One can see, on the one hand, in the justification of the president’s project a support for the Constitutional Tribunal’s premises about the protection of life after conception and the limitation of certain actions that destroy it.

On the other hand, the proposed solution, dealing with very rare cases, does not meet the necessity of limiting the evil effects of established law, as indicated by St. John Paul II. The president’s proposal is internally contradictory because the recent decision of the Constitutional Tribunal — which found all forms of eugenic abortion unconstitutional — is called into question in its light. From an ethical viewpoint, therefore, the proposal is an attempt to go back to the earlier legal status quo rather than a way of limiting an existing evil. 

What is a serious problem, practically untouched in the public debate in Poland, is pharmaceutical abortion. It is available in thousands of Polish pharmacies as “the morning after” or the “five days after” pill. How many abortions take place every day in the quiet of Polish homes in this way is honestly unknown. 


The Collapse of Myths

Recent events have revealed the truth about the state of mind of many Poles, particularly of the younger generation.

Research conducted in recent years by the Catholic Church’s Institute of Statistics on religious practices and reception of Communion by Polish Catholics points to a decline in participation in religious services and in society’s vigilance. Even if 90% of Poles are baptized and approximately 35% regularly attend Sunday Mass, this does not translate into Catholic thought on moral questions.

It is paradoxical that on the centennial of the birth of the Polish pope who seemed to be an important reference point for millions of his countrymen with regard to God, man and the Church, it has become obvious how many members of that Church support the slogans of those demanding change in Polish abortion law. 

Nor should we forget that the Church in Poland is one of the numerically largest religious organizations, and not just in Central Europe. Tens of thousands of young Catholics are taking part in the constant protests against the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision. They are either enrolled in religious education in primary or secondary school or have completed 12 years of such catechesis as they begin their university studies.

That situation should lead to reflection about the quality of formation of Polish consciences, in families, schools, parishes, media, and society. The pretty and valuable mottos of the teaching of St. John Paul II have shown themselves foreign to many Poles. Many of them lack solid arguments in the ongoing debate over life — they seem to have stopped at the stage of preparing for First Communion.

Considering the situation in many other countries, this moment may be seen as a turning point in the history of Polish Catholicism, which must face up to the moral hypocrisies of the consciences of many Catholics who back the slogans of a delayed Sexual Revolution. It is also a challenge in how to save the traditional Polish model of confessing the Catholic faith, which had nourished Poles for generations.