Last week, Poland took a step forward in defense of human life. The country’s constitutional court had ruled on October 22 that abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities is unconstitutional, and last Wednesday, this verdict went into effect when the court's reasoning was published in Poland's Journal of Laws.
The ruling makes eugenic abortions illegal, including abortions of unborn children with Down syndrome and of unborn children with fatal fetal abnormalities or terminal illnesses. Many Poles are against abortion in the case of Down syndrome: According to one survey, 46 percent are against it, compared with 38 percent who are not. More controversial is the ruling's criminalization of abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities. Poland’s Parliament is already set to vote on a legislative initiative from President Andrzej Duda that would make it legal to have an abortion when there is “a high probability that the child will be stillborn or have an incurable disease or defect that will lead to the death of the child inevitably and directly.” Even the constitutional court’s newly-published rationale for the ruling indicates that lethal fetal abnormalities could impact the mental health of women, implying that the government could create exceptions to the ruling for such cases.
Since 1989, Poland has been in a constant state of culture war, and one of the major conflicts is abortion. Under communism, a laissez-faire legal approach to abortion dominated, but after 1989 Catholics and pro-lifers campaigned to ban it. In 1993, a compromise law was introduced. This law made abortion legal in three situations: when there are fetal abnormalities, when the pregnancy jeopardizes the mother’s life or health, and when pregnancy results from an illicit act like rape or incest. This law has prevailed in Poland until now—with the exception of 1996, when the post-communist government legalized abortion on demand (a group of conservative senators petitioned the constitutional court to study the new legislation; it declared the law unconstitutional).
When the court first delivered its verdict in October, huge pro-abortion street protests erupted. The leader of the protests called upon her followers to desecrate churches and disrupt Masses, and sadly many did. According to the Polish police, 430,000 Poles protested against the ruling at the height of the demonstrations. That is a significant number, but it is still only about half the number of Poles who signed a petition asking Parliament to ban eugenic abortion in April 2020.
Meanwhile, nearly all polling indicates that Poles overwhelmingly oppose abortion on demand. Even a poll for the leftist Gazeta Wyborcza, which is often critical of the Church and has unambiguously supported the protests, shows that nearly two-thirds of Poles support a ban on abortion except for the circumstances outlined in the 1993 legislation (22 percent support abortion on demand and 11 percent are in favor of a complete ban). This indicates that Poland is Europe’s second most pro-life society, after Malta. This also indicates that if a referendum were held on abortion in the near future, as some politicians have recommended, Poles would overwhelmingly reject permissive abortion laws, unlike the Irish in 2018.
This is a major victory for the unborn. Social conservatives and pro-lifers cannot rest on their laurels, however. The Law and Justice party (PiS) must respond to accusations that it cares for Poles with disabilities only when they are in the womb. In 2018, Poles with disabilities and their caretakers vigorously protested in front of Parliament, demanding that those with disabilities receive greater financial support from the state and that they continue to receive such assistance after reaching the age of eighteen. Their cries fell on politicians’ deaf ears. The bishop of Torun is right when he demands that the Church and government do more to help the mothers of children with disabilities.
And during the Polish protests following October's ruling, most of the slogans on both sides were emotional; there was an utter lack of a bioethical arguments. This was evident when one of the most militant pro-abortion MPs said in a radio interview that human life starts when the heart starts beating, which in her view happens after birth (even high school biology textbooks demonstrate that the human heart starts beating six weeks after conception). The pro-life movement in Poland must now begin an ambitious campaign to make the biological case against abortion.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.
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