A clergyman and others pray as they take part in Sept. 22 pro-life rally in front of the parliament in Warsaw, Poland. Banners read: "Yes for life." (CNS photyo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)
Since the collapse of communism, Polish legislation has become among the most pro-life in Europe. Concurrently, popular support for abortion in Poland has plummeted, and the pro-life movement there is arguably the strongest on the Old Continent. Recently, however, a proposal to block abortion entirely was met with resistance among some in Polish society. The mainstream media in the West, of course, supported this backlash, often using false information. The silver lining is that Poland is still likely to ban eugenic abortions in the near future, thus saving the lives of thousands of unborn Poles with disabilities and once again making the country a model for defenders of life across Europe.
Background and numbers
Poland is the only democratic country with abortion previously legal-on-demand to adopt restrictive abortion laws. Communists, who encouraged abortion as a form of birth control, legalized the practice on demand in 1956. When Poland threw off Moscow’s shackles in 1989, Polish pro-lifers, emboldened by their staunchly pro-life countryman Pope John Paul II, began to demand that abortion be criminalized. In 1993, Poland’s Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka (who later served as Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See and is now a member of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) signed into law a bill that banned abortion except for in three circumstances: when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and in the case of “fetal malformation.” Unlike in other countries with relatively pro-life legislation, only the doctor performing the abortion is prosecuted; there are no legal consequences for the mother. These laws make Poland one of Europe’s most pro-life countries: abortion laws are more stringent only in Malta (where abortion is completely banned) and Andorra and the Republic of Ireland (in both countries, it is banned except when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life).
Although more than 90% of Poles identify as Catholics, most Poles initially opposed these pro-life measures. According to CBOS, Poland’s state polling agency, 64% of Poles supported abortion on demand in 1993, compared with 30% who did not. However, much has changed since. Today there are few Poles who accept abortion on demand; a poll by CBOS taken earlier this year shows that 75% of Poles oppose abortion when a woman is in a bad financial situation, 75% oppose it when her personal situation is difficult, and 76% are against legal abortion when a woman simply doesn’t want to have a child. According to this poll, 66% of Poles agree with the statement: “always and regardless of the circumstances, human life should be protected from conception to natural death.” Encouragingly, the number of Poles who want to restrict the legality of abortion has increased by 7% since 2012.
Perhaps surprisingly, the younger generation of Poles is most pro-life. A poll by IBRIS taken this year shows that 80% of Poles aged 18-24 are in favor of a total ban on abortion, compared to just 50% of those aged 65 and above. This confirms many sociological studies showing that there is a conservative revolution among young Poles. Having seen the effects of the selfish materialism that deluged Poland in the 1990s and the rising divorce rate, many of them want a return to traditional values.
The CBOS and IBRIS polls clearly show that Polish society is overwhelmingly pro-life. However, when asked about the details, most Poles support the current legislation. While the CBOS poll shows that two-thirds of Poles claim to be unconditionally pro-life, it also shows that 80% of Poles support the legality of abortion if a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, 71% do so when it threatens the mother’s health, and 73% believe it should be legal if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. Of the three circumstances in which abortion is legal in Poland, the case of “fetal malformation” has the least support: 53% of Poles believe that unborn children with disabilities can be legally killed, while 30% disagree.
Much of this encouraging change in attitudes towards abortion results from the Church’s work to educate Polish society about abortion. About 90% of Polish students attend religious education classes. Polish catechists have made it a priority to educate young people about abortion. I know many young Poles some of whom aren’t even churchgoers who have told me they are pro-life because they saw the documentary The Silent Scream in religion class.
Second, many Polish pro-life NGOs have sprung up since the 1990s, and they have worked tirelessly to educate Poles about abortion. I sometimes hear American pro-lifers saying that it is ineffective to spread the pro-life cause by showing images of mangled fetuses. The Polish example indicates otherwise. Fundacja Pro (“The Pro Foundation”) has since 2005 organized pro-life exhibits in the centers of cities across Poland. These exhibits show images of aborted children juxtaposed with pictures of the Armenian genocide or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Millions of Poles saw these exhibits, and many say the experience changed their perception of abortion.
Finally, the Church and pro-life organizations have provided alternatives to abortion. Since 2006, 58 “Windows of Life,” where mothers can anonymously leave unwanted infants who are taken into the care of nuns and given up for adoption, have been opened across Poland. Ninety children have been saved in this way, and consequently the incidence of infanticide in Poland has dropped from 47 in 2000 to just four in 2014.
The current conflict
While pro-lifers in North America and most of Europe envy Poland’s legislation, their Polish colleagues believe that much remains to be done in their country. According to Polish law, if a civic legislative initiative receives 100,000 or more signatures, the Parliament can vote on it. In 2007-2015, Poland was ruled by the Civic Platform party, which started out as a center-right Christian democratic grouping, but it increasingly caved into the demands of the left-liberal media. Civic Platform presented itself as a defender of the status quo on abortion, and every time pro-lifers introduced upwards of 100,000 signatures for a civic bill that would completely ban abortion, the ruling party voted against sending the initiative to the parliamentary committees.
Last year, however, marked a shift to the right in Polish politics. After a series of widely publicized corruption and nepotism scandals involving top Civic Platform leaders (as well as the fact that unemployment grew under Civic Platform’s rule, causing hundreds of thousands of Poles to immigrate to Western Europe; recently, Poles overtook Indians as the largest national minority in the United Kingdom), the party lost to the conservative Law and Justice, which had once ruled Poland in 2005-2007. Law and Justice is a strongly Catholic party, whose core electorate consists of devout Catholics. Law and Justice Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s son is a seminarian, while President Andrzej Duda has repeatedly stated that his faith is the most important part of his life. Law and Justice has repeatedly opposed the legalization of same-sex civil unions and government subsidies of in vitro fertilization. Understandably, pro-lifers saw last fall’s change of government as an opportunity for their dreams of an even more pro-life Poland to be realized.
Earlier this year, the Ordo Iuris Institute a socially conservative Warsaw-based think tank successfully gathered 450,000 signatures for a civic initiative called Stop aborcji (“Stop Abortion”), which would completely ban the procedure. Unlike other pro-life initiatives, the Ordo Iuris project postulated penalizing women who have abortions in addition to the doctors who perform them. Meanwhile, a group of leftists also gathered signatures although only 215,000, less than half of what the pro-lifers got for an initiative called Ratujmy kobiety (“Let’s Save the Women”) that would completely legalize abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
In late September, the Polish Parliament voted on sending these two civic initiatives to the committees. The Law and Justice leadership asked its deputies to vote to send both projects to the committees to show that they respect grassroots democracy. However, most Law and Justice deputies, as well as most deputies from the agrarian Polish Peasants’ Party and the anti-establishment right-wing Kukiz ’15 movement (headed by Paweł Kukiz, one of Poland’s most famous punk rock vocalists, who claims that he became pro-life after watching the documentary The Silent Scream) voted to send the pro-life project to the committees and to strike down the pro-abortion project. Despite party instructions to vote otherwise, most Law and Justice deputies simply couldn’t stomach showing any recognition for a project that allows the large-scale murder of three-month-old unborn humans.
As a result, Poland’s leftist elites became incensed. Quickly, a Facebook event titled Ogólnopolski strajk kobiet (“The Nationwide Women’s Strike”) was formed, and Gazeta Wyborcza, the nation’s leading leftist paper, ran a series of front-page articles encouraging its readers to protest. Some celebrities, such as actress Krystyna Janda and television presenter Dorota Wellman, also supported the looming protests. The organizers of this event encouraged women to not come to work on Monday October 3rd and to attend protests in 143 cities across Poland against the bill. The organizers claimed that the events were not in favor of legalizing abortion on demand, but only against adopting the bill. However, a look at the protests shows that this was not entirely true.
Protesters and media misrepresentation
Poland was not paralyzed by women who did not come to work on October 3rd. I spent the day in Wroclaw, the nation’s fourth-largest city. I had various errands to run and went to the bank and a few stores, and called the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and everywhere many women were working. In the late afternoon, however, protests did take place across Poland. According to the Polish police, 20,000 people protested in Warsaw, and overall 98,000 did so across Poland. Many of the protestors were vulgar, aggressive, and sometimes violent. Placards with vulgar terms for the female genitalia and explicit signs with cartoon ovaries giving the middle finger were omnipresent. In Poznan, what could be known as the Pro-Abortion Intifada took place: protestors threw rocks at the local Law and Justice headquarters, while five policemen were assaulted by the protestors. One had to undergo surgery after his face was disfigured; another’s neck was lacerated by fireworks thrown at him.
The numbers attending Monday’s protests were large, but two things must be kept in mind. First, given the pro-life revolution in Poland described above, the protestors are not representative of Polish society. Second, many large protests take place across Poland, but few gain so much support from the mainstream media. For instance, last year 20,000 pro-lifers marched against abortion in Szczecin, the same number as those who protested against pro-life measures in Warsaw this week. As Szczecin has less than a quarter of the population of Warsaw and the march received no support from any well-known public figures (except Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, who wrote a letter to the protestors praising their work), this turnout was all the more impressive. Yet the mainstream media completely ignored this.
In 1932-1933, The New York Times’ correspondent to the Soviet Union Walter Duranty denied that Stalin was deliberately starving Ukrainian peasants. Eight decades later, historians have no doubt that millions of Ukrainian peasants starved to death in what has come to be known as the Holodomor, and most historians consider this tragedy to be a genocide. If there were a Walter Duranty Award for Dishonest Reporting, the author of the Washington Post’s October 3rd piece on the pro-abortion marches in Poland would be a strong candidate. The piece states that six million women a third of Poland’s female population took place in these marches. As noted above, according to police statistics, the numbers of both men and women taking part were less than 100,000, one-sixtieth of the Post’s figure. No other source gives a remotely comparable number. It must be said that since Law and Justice came to power, the Post has published many pieces critical (often dishonestly so) of the new Polish government. It cannot be a coincidence that a veteran WaPo columnist is Anne Applebaum, who has previously heaped praise on the previous Civic Platform government while ignoring its corruption, and who is married to Radek Sikorski, one of the most disgraced Civic Platform ministers.
While the Monday protests were not representative of Polish society, they did cause Law and Justice to distance itself from the project. In the next two days, leading politicians from the party said that they are against abortion, but are afraid that a complete ban of abortion could cause pro-abortion movements to grow in number and cause an anti-life rebellion among the Poles. What’s more, in recent days, the Polish bishops made strong statements that they oppose penalizing women for having abortions, as the Ordo Iuris project postulates, just the doctors. Law and Justice politicians then also began to state their opposition to jailing women. On Thursday, the Polish Parliament including most Law and Justice deputies decided to ultimately scrap the Ordo Iuris project.
Frightening by the prospect of a growing pro-abortion movement and the loss of moderate voters, Law and Justice disappointed many pro-lifers on Thursday. However, there are many reasons to be optimistic that Poland’s legislation will be more pro-life in the near future. Law and Justice realizes that it won last year’s elections above all thanks to moderate voters, most of whom support the current laws. However, the party also understands that its base electorate consists of many conservative Catholics and pro-lifers. Alienating them could cause a new schismatic socially conservative party to appear (and thus a hemorrhaging of voters). In 2007, Law and Justice voted against a complete abortion ban. As a result, a group of conservative deputies headed by Marek Jurek, then speaker of the lower chamber of Parliament (and now a member of the European Parliament), founded a breakaway party. Law and Justice does not want to repeat this scenario.
During her speech to the Parliament ahead of Thursday’s abortion vote, Prime Minister Beata Szydło said that while she fears the unintended consequences of a total abortion ban, she still plans on making Polish society more pro-life. She vowed to increase subsidies to single mothers, families with children with disabilities, and mothers with children resulting from “difficult pregnancies” (one can infer that she meant those who are the result of rape) in the 2017 national budget. She also said that the Polish government will embark on an information campaign encouraging expecting mothers to choose life.
What’s more, according to the Polish Press Agency, Law and Justice will soon be working on a new pro-life bill that would end eugenic abortion. This is consistent with what the party’s politicians have been saying in the press in the past few days; they have said that they are afraid of unintended consequences of a total abortion ban, but that they think that the time is right to ban abortion in the case of “fetal malformation.” In Poland, about 1,000 legal abortions are performed each year; the overwhelming majority concern “fetal malformation,” and many involve unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Such a proposal is likely to have the support of a large majority of Parliament: in addition to Law and Justice politicians, deputies from the Polish Peasants’ Party and Kukiz ’15 have also spoken in favor of ending the legality of eugenic abortion rather than a comprehensive ban.
Sadly, one can get the impression that in mainstream secular media outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times or Guardian, the protest of 98,000 angry, vulgar, and sometimes violent feminists in Poland received far more coverage than the fact that a couple months ago, between 2 and 3 million young peaceful, loving Catholics from Poland and across the world joined Pope Francis outside Krakow to pray and celebrate their faith. This says much about the state of the secular media today. Nonetheless, for someone who trusts science and reason and knows that, for example, brain waves can be detected in an unborn baby six weeks after conception and that the fetus is a distinct person, Monday’s protests and the fact that they made Poland’s conservative government abandon far-reaching pro-life legislation must be a defeat. Fortunately, it is still likely that in the near future, Poland will ban most abortions that are currently legal in the country. Now is the time to pray that Poland’s leaders will have the determination to once again prove that with regards to protecting the unborn, it is a model for Europe and the West.