Catholics Wage Legal Battle for Life in Poland


Above and below, images from the March for Life and the Family in Warsaw, during which the Ordo Iuris Institute collected signatures for their civic initiative.
Above and below, images from the March for Life and the Family in Warsaw, during which the Ordo Iuris Institute collected signatures for their civic initiative. (photo: Facebook profile: Instytut na rzecz Kultury Prawnej Ordo Iuris)

WARSAW, Poland — In the past two decades, Poland has been a source of inspiration for pro-lifers around the world. Under communism, abortion was legalized on demand in the country and was encouraged as a form of birth control.

After Poland’s return to democracy, however, many Poles began to demand greater legal protections for human life. Consequently, in 1993, the Polish Parliament adopted legislation that bans abortion with three exceptions: when the pregnancy threatens the life or physical health of the mother; when it results from an illegal act such as rape or incest; and when the fetus is “malformed.”

Initially, most Poles opposed the new legislation. According to Centrum Badań Opinii Publicznej (The Center for Public Opinion Research, or CBOS), the state polling firm, 64% of Poles were in favor of legal abortion on demand, with only 30% opposed, in 1993.

Since then, however, the Church and a growing number of pro-life organizations sought to educate Poles on abortion. Starting in 2005, for instance, the Pro Foundation, Poland’s biggest pro-life non-governmental organization, has organized dozens of exhibits in the centers of major Polish cities showing photos of aborted children. As a result, Polish society has become increasingly pro-life.

A CBOS poll from October 2016 shows that only 23% of Poles support abortion on demand, with 62% favoring the current legislation and 7% wanting a complete ban. Encouragingly, the youngest generation is by far the most pro-life: A recent poll by the Instytut Badań Rynkowych i Społecznych (The Institute for Market and Social Research) shows that 79.2% of Poles age 18 to 24 want a complete ban on abortion.

Between 2007 and 2015, Poland was ruled by the liberal-leaning Civic Platform party, which supported the current legislation. According to law, the Polish Parliament must vote on a civic initiative if it receives 100,000 signatures. During Civic Platform’s rule, pro-life organizations consistently produced upwards of 100,000 signatures, but the ruling party always voted against sending pro-life initiatives to the parliamentary committees.


Pro-Life Opportunity?

Last year, however, the conservative Law and Justice party took power. Seeing this as an opportunity, the Ordo Iuris Institute, a pro-life, pro-family think tank based in Warsaw, collected 450,000 signatures for an initiative proposing a bill that would ban abortion in all circumstances and also penalize women who undergo the procedure with jail sentences ranging from three months to five years (according to Polish law, only the physician is prosecuted for performing an abortion; women who decide to have abortions are not penalized). Meanwhile, abortion-rights organizations gathered 215,000 signatures for an initiative that would legalize abortion on demand during the first trimester.

In September, a parliamentary majority voted to send the pro-life initiative to committees and scrap the pro-abortion project. As a result, 98,000 Polish women, supported by the Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper and other mainstream media, protested against the proposed legislation in cities across Poland on Oct. 3. Just three days later, Law and Justice deputies in the committees voted against the initiative. The party’s leaders, including former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, explained that they are afraid that the Ordo Iuris proposal was too radical and it could create fertile ground for pro-abortion movements.

Polish pro-lifers were disappointed. “In previous years, Law and Justice pretended to be pro-life. However, Jarosław Kaczyński has shown his pro-abortion stance,” Mariusz Dzierżawski, head of the Pro Foundation, told the Register.

While it seems clear that Law and Justice will not introduce a complete abortion ban, it does seem likely that it will end the legality of abortion in the case of fetal “malformation.” In a recent interview with the weekly W Sieci, Polish President Andrzej Duda said, “I believe that [unborn] children with Down syndrome and other disabilities should be protected. […] The current abortion law does not protect them.”

These sentiments were echoed by Law and Justice’s Member of Parliament Jacek Żalek, one of the most pro-life Polish deputies: “I am convinced that, during this term, the Parliament will eliminate the discriminatory clause allowing for the killing of children with Down syndrome and other ailments,” he told the Register. Such a change in itself would greatly reduce abortions in Poland; the vast majority of legal abortions in Poland involve the killing of unborn children with disabilities. According to the Polish Ministry of Health, of 977 legal abortions performed in Poland last year, more than 90% (927) were because of “fetal malformation” (as opposed to just two related to pregnancies resulting from rape or incest).

In the past few weeks, the Polish Parliament has not yet dealt with any new pro-life legislation. However, Poland’s government did decide to increase welfare spending on families with children with severe disabilities, granting them subsidized legal assistance and improving their access to prenatal care.


Poland’s Culture War

While the international media reported on the pro-abortion marches in Poland widely and favorably, their participants represent only one part of Polish society. Less than two weeks after these “black marches,” as their organizers dubbed them, a comparable number of Poles — more than 100,000 — attended an expiatory service at the Marian shrine in Jasna Góra to apologize to God for the sins of the Polish nation, above all abortion.

Like in other Western nations, there is a culture war in Poland, and there are two Polands: one that wants the country to follow the decadent path of secularism and one that wants Poland to remain a bastion of faith in a secularized world and remind Europe of its roots. The “black marches” were a manifestation of the first group, and the service in Jasna Góra showed the power of the second group, as did the enormous crowds of Poles that flocked to see Pope Francis in July for World Youth Day, the 80,000 Poles who recently attended a special Mass enthroning Christ as King of Poland in the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow, and the 450,000 Polish citizens who signed an initiative for their national legislation to better protect the unborn.

Law and Justice’s leaders know that while the majority of Poles support the current abortion legislation, their core voters are conservative Catholics who are pro-life, and they won’t be re-elected without their support. “We will support every activity to fully protect human life. However, for now, we want to calmly analyze the situation that resulted from the demonstrated hypocrisy of many Law and Justice politicians,” Joanna Banasiuk, head of the Ordo Iuris Institute, told the Register. In other words, if Poland’s ruling party fails to make the country’s legislation more pro-life, it can expect a conservative backlash.

Poland’s adoption of relatively pro-life legislation in 1993 made the country a model for pro-life activists. Now, it has the chance to do so again, by eliminating the eugenic clause of its abortion law. If Law and Justice fails to do so, then conservative voters will respond accordingly at the ballot box. If it does, then it can once again prove that Poland is a beacon of hope and faith for Europe.

Filip Mazurczak filed this report from Krakow, Poland.