Poland's Abortion Restrictions Overturned in Surprise Vote

Special to the Register

WARSAW, Poland-For Ewa Kowalewska, these are trying times. A quarter of a century has passed since she began participating in pro-life demonstrations alongside her husband as a member of Gdansk University's Catholic Students Association.

When communism collapsed in 1989, the couple started a newspaper, Glos dla Zycia (Voice for Life), from their small apartment near the city's fabled shipyards, as well as a pro-life information sheet, which was produced and circulated at their own expense.

Still in her early 40s, Kowalewska now heads the Polish branch of Human Life International. She's also a leading member of the Federation of Pro-Life Movements, a coalition of 93 organizations around the world that promote natural family planning and support for single mothers.

Late last month that work was dealt a severe blow when Polish parliamentarians, led by former communists, voted to throw out their country's ground-breaking 1993 abortion law. The new measure has left pro-lifers like Kowalewska shocked and angry. “Despite a hostile media, the current law has raised national awareness, and is accepted by society, while the gloomy predictions made when it was passed have all been disproved,” Kowalewska told the Register. “But the deputies weren't interested in facts and arguments, society's attitude or the effects of their bill. They simply followed the political line laid down for them.”

The 460-member Sejm lower house passed the new bill by 208 votes to 61, with 15 abstentions, after 120 opposition deputies attempted to prevent a quorum by walking out, while a junior party in government, the Polish People's Party (PSL), refrained from voting. But the bill gained near-unanimous backing from ex-communists in the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), giving it the appearance of another blow struck in the party's long-running feud with the Catholic Church.

Whereas Poland's existing 1993 law, passed after a four-year campaign, permits abortions only when a

mother's “life or health” are endangered, as well as in rare cases of rape, incest and “very serious and irreparable fetal damage,” the new bill allows abortions up to 12 weeks of gestation for women facing “burdensome living conditions or a difficult personal situation.” It also scraps an existing clause restricting legal abortions to state hospitals, and expressly allows girls as young as 13 to undergo abortions with parental consent.

Meanwhile, the bill reimposes an existing two-year jail sentence for illegal abortions. But it allows for state subsidies on contraception-at a time when most ordinary medicines are often too expensive for poorer citizens-and requires all students to take controversial “biological” classes in sex education.

Poland's Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, has warned that those who voted for the new measure are guilty of a “grave sin,” while the secretary-general of Poland's Catholic episcopate, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, has warned the bill's supporters that they face excommunication. “I would not shrink from calling this a crime against humanity,” Bishop Pieronek said after the vote. “When a baptized person commits acts against Christian principles, he excludes himself from the Church community and can only return through penance and [reparation].”

Pro-life activists still hope the bill can be turned back when it reaches the Polish Senate, where the SLD's majority is weaker. And even if it passes, they'll try to have it blocked by the country's Constitutional Tribunal. But such steps are unlikely to succeed. When a similar liberalizing bill was passed in June 1994, it was vetoed by President Lech Walesa.

By contrast, Poland's current head of state, Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist, has pledged to sign the latest bill into law. “I'd be happy if this problem didn't exist,” the 41-year-old Kwasniewski said after the vote. “But liberalization of the law will correct a hypocritical situation which has already lasted for several years.”

That claim has been at the hub of the SLD's campaign against the 1993 “Law on Family Planning, Defense of the Fetus and Acceptance of Pregnancy Terminations.” Poland's Health Ministry certifies that the law has cut abortions from 11,640 nationwide in 1992, when they were still available on demand, to 782 in 1994 and 559 in 1995.

However, pro-abortion campaigners say the ministry has turned a blind eye to thousands of abortions still conducted illegally for high fees at most gynecology clinics, as well as abroad, via companies specializing in “abortion tourism.” (Ironically, the Polish law hasn't reversed a decline in annual live births from 678,000 in 1985 to 482,000 in 1994. The growth-rate of the country's population of 38.6 million has also fallen by half since 1990, making it the lowest in half a century.)

Although the new law requires sex education to be available at schools, there's been no agreement on a national course. And although it says contraception will be “freely available,” it remains expensive and is used by only a small percentage of the population. Meanwhile, although police investigated 53 alleged illegal abortions nationwide in 1993, and a further 88 in 1994, most cases were dropped for lack of evidence.

The 1993 law required the authorities to provide “all necessary social, medical, legal and material help” to pregnant women and single mothers. But with 13 percent of Polish citizens living in state-defined “absolute poverty,” and the proportion rising, this help has been minimal. However, pro-life reject suggestions that this justifies changing the law, accusing the new bill's supporters of distorting the figures. Although illegal abortions occur, pro-lifers say, their frequency is entirely unconfirmed.

What is certain, according to police and Health Ministry findings, is that fewer children are being abandoned or killed now than in 1990. There are also fewer miscarriages and deaths in childbirth, while the health of Polish women is improving, as is the sense of security of wives and mothers.

The abortion problem, pro-lifers stress, is a moral rather than a social one. Most abortions occur in relatively well-off Polish households, and current rates can't be related to poverty levels and the lack of public resources. Even if the 1993 law is working imperfectly-and this hasn't been proved-that can't be the reason for changing it, these activists stress.

At her Human Life International office in Gdansk, Ewa Kowalewska is certain the 1993 law has had positive results. Recent surveys suggest public opinion has shifted against abortion, with well more than half of Poland's 38.6 million citizens now declaring themselves in favor of tight restrictions. Meanwhile, the predictions made in 1993 have long since been exposed as false. There's been no increase in abandoned children, and Poland's orphanages aren't overflowing, she said. Instead, there's actually been a fall in admissions to single mothers' homes, and the line of parents hoping to adopt children is longer than ever, she reported.

Kowalewska thinks pressure from the United Nations and other international organizations has played a part in the SLD's pro-choice campaign. Some foreign groups are known to have given money to Poland for contraception and sex education and to have urged legislators to reject “Catholic indoctrination” in their approach to social and moral issues.

Like others, Kowalewska is bitter. A wave of clinic pickets and occupation strikes could well be the only answer if the new bill becomes law in November, she predicted. “As Catholics, we don't show aggression. But this vote represents a provocative attack on Polish Catholicism and Christian values. Though I hope we can solve the problem democratically, I can't rule out a certain aggressiveness on society's part,” Kowalewska said.

“I think God will judge us not by what we've done, but by what we've tried to do. I see this as a struggle for Poland, for the future, for our children. And I'm sure the struggle will continue.”

Jonathan Luxmoore, the Register's eastern Europe correspondent, is based in Warsaw.