Last year, amid large street protests, Poland’s conservative government in a parliamentary committee shot down a civic initiative that would have completely banned abortion and penalized women for having abortions. Polish pro-lifers were disappointed, but they did not throw in the towel. Thanks to their efforts, Poland now seems poised to ban eugenic abortion in the near future.
Abortion was first legalized in Poland in 1932, albeit in very limited circumstances: when the pregnancy threatened the woman’s health or resulted from an illegal act, such as rape or incest. Poland actually became the first European country to legalize abortion in the latter case. While this fact is undoubtedly embarrassing to pro-abortionists, abortion on demand was first legalized in Poland by none other than Adolf Hitler in 1943. During Nazi Germany’s brutal occupation of Poland, Polish and Jewish women could have abortions without any restrictions. This was part of Nazi Germany’s racist policy of completely exterminating Poland’s and Europe’s Jews and partially exterminating non-Jewish Poles, with the goal of turning Poland into Lebensraum, living room for the Aryan “master race.”
After the Second World War, Poland found itself behind the Iron Curtain which, in the famous words of Winston Churchill, “stretched from Stettin [by then Szczecin, Poland] in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” The Soviet Union was the first country to legalize abortion on demand, and communist regimes have promoted abortion (one rare exception was Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, who tried to restrict it not because he was pro-life, but because as a nationalist he wanted there to be as many Romanians as possible). In 1956, the parliament of Poland, than a puppet of the Kremlin, legalized abortion largely on demand.
Under communism, abortion was seen as a routine medical procedure among most Poles. However, it is well known that the Catholic Church played a leading role in opposition to and the ultimate downfall of Poland’s communist regime. Thus after the restoration of democracy in Poland in 1989, devout Catholics campaigned to make abortion illegal. In 1993, Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka, a devout Catholic who would later serve as Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See and who now serves on Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, signed a bill that bans abortion with three exceptions: when the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother, when the pregnancy results from an illicit act such as rape or incest, and in the case of “fetal malformation.”
Initially, most Poles opposed these changes. However, throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, the number of Poles accepting abortion on demand has plummeted. A 2016 poll by CBOS, Poland’s state polling agency, shows that 66 percent of Poles believe that “always and regardless of the circumstances human life should be protected from conception to natural death.” However, when asked about specifics, most Poles actually support the current legislation. Most oppose abortion on demand: 75 percent believe that a woman should not have the right to an abortion because of a difficult financial situation, while 76 percent believe that women should not be allowed to have an abortion when they simply don’t want to have a child. However, 80 percent of Poles support legal abortions when the pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, 71 percent are in favor when it threatens her health, and 73 percent believe that abortion should be legal in the case of incest or rape. Legal abortion in the case of “fetal malformation” has the lowest support; 53 percent of Poles are in favor. Most encouraging is the fact that young Poles are most pro-life; 65 percent of Poles aged 18 to 24 believe that abortion should be banned in all circumstances, the highest percentage among all age groups (for 45- to 54-year-olds, it’s only 42 percent).
This enormous change in social attitudes in Poland regarding abortion is the fruit of years of hard work on the part of the Church and pro-life organizations. In 1990, religious education was reintroduced in Polish public schools. While these courses are optional, about 90 percent of Polish students attend them. In religious courses, Polish catechists often talk about abortion and frequently show the documentary The Silent Scream; religious education is probably one of the reasons why young Poles are more likely to oppose abortion than their parents and grandparents are. Meanwhile, pro-life NGOs are very active across Poland. The Pro Foundation (Fundacja Pro) has put up many billboards showing aborted humans across Poland over the years.
The billboards are often placed in strategic areas of major cities that many passersby see. The Pro Foundation estimates that everyday 200,000 Poles see them. These billboards have been often criticized for being excessively graphic, and Polish leftists have tried to have them banned (might they be afraid of the truth?), but with little success. In 2013, for example, a court in the Mokotów district of Warsaw found an activist from the Pro Foundation not guilty of “causing scandal in a public place” by hanging such a billboard near a Warsaw parish.
Naturally, both illegal abortions and “abortion tourism” occur in Poland. The left uses this as an argument to support the legalization of abortion. While it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove how many Polish women travel to other countries for abortions or have them illegally performed, evidence suggests that these are not widespread phenomena.
In 1997, Poland’s post-communists legalized abortion on demand (eventually, the Constitutional Court struck down the law as unconstitutional, and abortion was banned again in most circumstances). According to the Ministry of Health, approximately 3,000 abortions were performed in Poland in 1997, all of them legal (that year, 412,000 babies were born in Poland, which translates into a very low rate of less than one abortion for every 100 births). In 2010, the British tabloid The Sun claimed that 10,000 Polish women had abortions in the UK. Quickly, however, The Sun’s Pinocchio tactics were exposed and it turned out that, according to the document Abortion Statistics for England and Wales, in 2009 a mere twenty Polish women had abortions in Britain, just 0.3 percent of all abortions performed there. Given the enormous scale of Polish immigration to the British Isles (numbering nearly one million, Poles are the largest national minority in the UK) and the fact that Britain has one of Europe’s most permissive abortion laws, this is a very small number. All this suggests that relatively few Polish women have abortions, legal or not; this probably has to do with the fact that growing numbers of them see abortion as something morally wrong.
With the exceptions of Ireland, Malta, and Andorra, all countries in Europe and North America have much more permissive abortion laws than Poland, and an American, Canadian, or Italian pro-lifer can only dream of having such relatively pro-life laws in his or her country. However, Poland’s pro-life movement continues to fight for the right to life. According to Poland’s Ministry of Health, 1,098 legal abortions were performed in Polish hospitals last year. There is significant regional variation; the most abortions (336) were performed in liberal Mazovia, the region of central Poland where Warsaw is located, while the fewest (a mere two) were performed in Subcarpathia, one of the most traditional and religious regions of Poland.
The overwhelming majority of legal abortions in Poland are eugenic; according to Poland’s Ministry Health, 1,042 out of 1,098 legal abortions performed in Poland in 2016 were because of “fetal malformation.” Disturbingly, unborn children with Down Syndrome are disproportionately targeted; 35 percent of last year’s legal abortions involved such cases.
For many years, Poland’s pro-life movement has worked to ban abortion completely. As we have seen, most Poles support the legal status quo on the matter, so, predictably, this strategy has proved quixotic. According to Polish law, if a committee gathers 100,000 signatures on a civic initiative, the Sejm, the lower chamber of Poland’s Parliament, must vote on it. In recent years, Poland’s pro-life NGOs have consistently gathered many more than the required number of signatures on initiatives that would ban abortion in all circumstances. The most successful initiative was in 2011, when 600,000 signatures were gathered.
While these are impressive numbers, the savvier of Polish politicians know social attitudes and thus voted down these initiatives. Between 2007 and 2015, Poland was ruled by the liberal-leaning, pro-EU Civic Platform Party, which declared itself in favor of the status quo on abortion. Having humiliated themselves by corruption and nepotism scandals and recordings of candid restaurant conversations showing that its leading politicians were completely indifferent to the needs of most Poles (and attempted to do unconstitutional things, such as increasing political control over the national bank), Civic Platform was harshly punished by Polish voters in 2015. They were replaced by the conservative Law and Justice party.
While some leftist media outlets in the West portray Law and Justice as far-right nationalists, in reality they are much more moderate; they belong to the same fraction as the British Tories in the European Parliament. Thus while its core electorate is composed of conservative Catholics and many of its leading politicians are themselves devout Catholics (for example, the son of Beata Szydło, who until early December was prime minister, was ordained a priest earlier this year), its leadership tries to avoid excessively radical policies to avoid losing the support of moderate voters.
Such was the case in 2007, during the first Law and Justice government, when its coalition partner, the nationalist, Catholic League of Polish Families, tried to ban abortion entirely. Law and Justice’s leadership, including its chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, voted down this proposal (consequently, the speaker of the Parliament, Marek Jurek, now a member of the European Parliament, left Law and Justice and started his own splinter party).
Something very similar occurred last year. In 2016, the Ordo Iuris Institute, a conservative Warsaw-based legal think tank, produced 450,000 signatures for a civic bill that would not only ban abortion in all cases, but would also prosecute women who have had them (Polish law only prosecutes doctors). This latter clause was very controversial, as even Poland’s bishops spoke out against jailing women for having abortions. At the same time, a pro-abortion committee called “Save the Women” (Ratujmy Kobiety) obtained 215,000 signatures in favor of an initiative that would legalize abortion on demand. Law and Justice deputies voted to move the pro-life bill to the committees and to strike down the pro-abortion one.
Subsequently, large street protests were held across Poland on October 3, 2016. They were openly supported by Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading leftist newspaper edited by the legendary communist-era dissident Adam Michnik (who since 1989 has compromised his legacy by being much too friendly with communist-era thugs like Czesław Kiszczak and Wojciech Jaruzelski). However, these protests were not as spontaneous as the left-liberal media in Poland and abroad claimed; according to Poland’s conservative daily Rzeczpospolita, the organizers of the marches received one million zlotys from American and West European pro-abortion NGOs.
Fearing a social backlash that could, paradoxically, lead to social demands for the legalization of abortion, Law and Justice struck down the bill in the parliamentary committees just days after the protests. Many Polish pro-lifers were very disappointed. However, there is reason for optimism.
Last year’s protests showed pro-life NGOs that to eliminate abortion in Poland, it is more effective to pursue gradual rather than revolutionary changes. Since last year’s protests, Polish pro-lifers have worked to end eugenic abortion. If their efforts are successful, this would save many human lives, because, as we have seen, most legal abortions performed in Poland pertain to “fetal malformation” and especially target children with Down Syndrome.
This fall, the “Stop Abortion” (Zatrzymaj Aborcję) committee, formed by the “Life and Family” Foundation (Fundacja Życie i Rodzina) and the Polish branch of CitizenGO, collected 830,000 signatures for an initiative that would ban eugenic abortion. This is an absolute record for pro-life initiatives in post-communist Poland. Catholic bishops have explicitly endorsed this initiative.
At the same time, the popularity of last year’s pro-abortion marches has fizzled. While it is clear that its organizers’ true purpose was to legalize abortion on demand in Poland, from numerous talks with Poles I have deduced that many participants of these marches were in fact in favor of the status quo on abortion; they went to protest banning abortions when a pregnancy could threaten a woman’s life or other extreme cases. The fact that the organizers have utterly flopped in attracting supporters to subsequent marches shows this. This year on October 3, marches commemorating the anniversary of last year’s protests were held. Turnout was very low; in Warsaw, just 2,000 people attended (compared to 17,000 the year before), while in Kielce a whopping 50 people came. The crowded streets of Nowy Sacz, meanwhile, swelled with 30 angry pro-abortionists.
Like Poland’s pro-lifers, its pro-abortion advocates also gathered signatures for a new initiative. This effort was organized by Barbara Nowacka, a pro-abortion leftist politician who did not receive enough votes to gain a seat in Parliament in 2017; she told the speaker of the Sejm that 371,156 Poles signed the initiative. However, Ms. Nowacka is either being dishonest or math wasn’t her best subject at school: her committee gave 21,823 papers, each with ten signatures, to the Sejm. A prosecutor is currently probing to see if she was lying. Even if she was being honest, 371,156 signatures is still fewer than 830,000, the number of signatures that the pro-life initiative received.
Poland’s ruling party has voiced support for the pro-life measures. In October, President Andrzej Duda, from the Law and Justice party, told Gość Niedzielny, Poland’s bestselling Catholic weekly, that he will sign into law a bill banning eugenic abortion. Jarosław Kaczyński, the party’s head, has said the same. Meanwhile, in November a group of 100 deputies (out of a total of 460) from Law and Justice and several conservative opposition groups presented a request to the Constitutional Tribunal to see if eugenic abortion is unconstitutional. While Law and Justice do not want to completely ban abortion, they know that if they ignore pro-life groups entirely the latter could form a new party, as in 2007, and cost them the next election.
Thus it seems extremely likely that in the coming months Poland will ban eugenic abortion. This could have international consequences. Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have seen countries like Poland, Slovakia, and Croatia as bastions of the faith that could help the increasingly post-Christian West return to its roots. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Poles prayed the Rosary for peace, for their country, and for Europe. This inspired Catholics in Italy, the United States, and Ireland to host similar events in their countries. If Poland is successful in banning eugenic abortion, it is likely that pro-lifers in other countries will follow Poland’s lead.
However, if all goes well, Poland’s Church and pro-life movement cannot rest on their laurels. As we have seen, about half of Poles still accept legal abortion in the case of “fetal malformation.” Now is the time to educate Polish society about the right to life shared by all humans, even those who are sick or have disabilities, and to fight what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture.” In particular, pro-lifers have to prove to Polish society that abortion is not a confessional, Catholic issue, but a universal, human rights issue. The previous successes of Poland’s pro-life movement in greatly reducing popular support for legal abortion on demand shows that this is possible.