The Hidden Story of Pope John Paul II's 'Culture of Life' and Polish Abortion Policy

Article excerpt

NINE YEARS AGO IN THE POLISH city of Pita, a young woman got pregnant. She started suffering from severe abdominal pain, and soon after doctors diagnosed her with a serious colon disease. During her stay in different hospitals, doctors took her suffering and worsening condition for granted, refusing to perform the necessary examinations and introduce treatment that might put the pregnancy at risk. They did not manage to keep the fetus alive. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old woman died as well--in terrible pain.

Stories of women suffering and sometimes even dying because they have been denied access to abortion are not uncommon in Poland. Yet in public discussions, we hear the existing legal provisions (which allow for a pregnancy to be terminated only in cases of risk to a woman's life, serious fetal anomalies, rape or incest) presented as a compromise. In reality, the stigma surrounding the issue means that even women who are legally entitled to an abortion face resistance and have to fight to exercise that right.


The themes that dominate today's debates about reproductive rights are that Polish society as a whole believes in traditional values, nurtures the "culture of life" idea cherished by the late Pope John Paul II and is against liberalizing the abortion law. Bishops and prominent decision makers claim that the fight for a woman's right to choose is a private war waged by a group of leftist feminists whose aim is to destroy the structure of the family and the foundations of our nation. These views are not grounded in reality. Thousands of women each year travel abroad for the procedure or undergo illegal abortions in Poland. In this brief analysis I will go back and investigate the transition from regarding abortion as a common and not too controversial phenomenon, until today when, despite huge progress in many areas of social and economic life, women's basic human rights--like the right to life, health and dignity--are violated in the name of protecting life.

In 2006 I met Maria Jaszczuk, then 91, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Ravensbriick concentration camps. As a member of parliament in 1956, she was the rapporteur for the Bill on Conditions of Pregnancy Termination that made abortion legal for Polish women for the next 37 years. During a conversation with feminist activists, she explained that the reasoning behind the introduction of the progressive regulation had women's best interests at heart. Due to the lack of effective contraception at the time, the rate of unwanted pregnancies was high and women sought help with "induced miscarriages" in back alleys. In the 1950s, approximately 80,000 women were hospitalized every year to treat the health impacts of illegal abortions. It is worth noting that a common claim about the more liberal abortion laws--that they were forced on Poland against the popular will by the Communist regime--is not true. Discussions about the possibility of decriminalizing abortion date back to the 1920s, when the debates about the Polish criminal code started. Activists such as Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski and Irena Krzywicka argued that abortion should be available to end the underground market that provided abortion services while putting women's health and lives at risk.

Thirty years ago when my mother was a young woman, abortion was a standard procedure available with few restrictions. Like in the case of many Soviet bloc countries, contraception was not widely available here and termination was often the only possible option of controlling family size. The quality of services left a lot to be desired, and the concept of patient's rights seemed like a distant fantasy. Women I spoke to said that at the time, abortion was not something to brag about, but at least if you decided to end the pregnancy for "social or economic reasons" you could access the procedure regardless of your financial status.

In the Communist era, the Roman Catholic hierarchy did not devote as much attention to the issue of abortion compared to today. …