“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. The teaching of the Church is clear, and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The words of Pope Benedict. And while one might understand the Pope’s point, in Poland, Europe’s most Catholic country, abortion is just what everybody has started to talk about. For a private group, Stop Abortion, now seeks to gain the 100,000 signatures necessary to put on the legislative agenda a new law to restrict, to the point of abolition, the right to abortion in Poland.
In fact, Poland already has very a strict law dating from 1993, with abortions being allowed if the mother’s health is at risk, if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if the foetus is disabled or terminally ill. The Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło told Polish Radio that she is in favour of a complete ban on abortion, although this was her personal opinion and not necessarily that of all ruling PiS party members. She said that if the proposed law is taken up in the Polish parliament she will not insist that other PiS members vote for a complete ban.
Her comments followed an open letter from the head of the Polish Episcopate calling on members of parliament to vote in favour of a complete ban, arguing that there can be no compromise on the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński told reporters that if he were to make a prediction, he is convinced that the overwhelming majority of his parliamentary party, perhaps all, support the proposed law and that “in these matters, as a Catholic, I follow the teachings of the bishops.”
Although a new survey by CBOS suggests there has been a drop in support for abortion, thousands took to the streets across Poland over the weekend – a regular feature since PiS came to power – to protest against the proposed ban, with a large crowd gathering outside the Polish parliament in Warsaw on Saturday afternoon. To point out the full horrors of women having to seek illegal remedies if abortion were to be banned, demonstrators carried coat hangers, albeit of the useless heavy-duty plastic type found in DIY emporia – adopted on the internet into a Banksyesque street art symbol of the struggle – rather than the wire type which forms the back street abortionist’s tool.
The protests even appeared to continue into Mass on Sunday, with films circulating showing folk leaving a couple of churches as an anti-abortion pastoral letter was read. These walk outs appeared rather staged since, of course, there’s always a camera in Church during the homily and those retreating down the aisle seemed a little unsure of what they were supposed to do. Besides, one goes to Mass for the sacrament, to be with God, and to pray. Since the homily is not part of the liturgical action, leaving because one disagrees with it seems to bespeak of a lack of understanding of why one is there is the first place. This particular piece of theatre seems likely to backfire with many devout folk not taking kindly to this sort of spectacle. But I digress.
What it means in practice is that PiS has another battle on its hands which even if it were to win – which it probably would – might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, a point recognised by deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin. Gowin, who is also Minister of Science and Education, told TVP on Sunday night that any change in the current laws should take place only following “a very mature and calm discussion.” Although opposed to abortion himself, the deputy prime minister said that a total ban could “lead to rebellion which in a few years could lead to the full liberalization of anti-abortion legislation.”
Be that as it may, a new approach, in Poland and elsewhere, is needed. On the one hand, legal abortions may take place up to 25 weeks in Poland, and 24 in the UK, for example; on the other, 24 weeks is also the time at which doctors begin to consider worthwhile surgical intervention to save premature babies. Whatever one’s view on the issue, there seems something profoundly troubling at the thought that doctors, perhaps in the same hospital, should be struggling to save one life, while ending another, at a point when both have the same potential. A difficult answer is no excuse to avoid a difficult question.