The Church Wins, Women Lose; Poland's Abortion Law

Article excerpt

On March 16, a new abortion law went into effect in Poland. Article One reads: "1) Each human being has a right to life starting from conception. 2) The life and health of a child from the moment of its conception will remain under the protection of law." Article begins to elucidate the paternalism in that word "protection." There will be medical care for the "conceived child and its mother" (treating the two as separate patients with separate needs is one of the rhetorical triumphs of the right-to-life movement in the United States as well as Poland), and there will be "services available for solving psychological and social problems."

Lest a U.S. reader feel a flicker of envy for "services" of ,any kind, read on: Some of this government ,"help and care" will be funneled through the Catholic Church, and here's what the schools will provide: "Education on sexual life... on family and conceived life values, as well as, on methods and means of conscious procreation." The phrase "conscious procreation" is a bizarre coinage-one of a number of tortured locutions in this law--and no two Polish informants interpret it the same way. Pro-choice activist Wanda Nowicka of the Federation for Women and Planned Parenthood asserts that in the current political climate the term is Orwellian-- promisihg not contraception but knowledge about how to conceive, not family planning but plans for large families.

Such rival meanings might stay in the realm of semantic debate or be fought over in local practices if it weren't for the ominous addition to the criminal code that crops up in Article Seven: "Who causes the death of [the] conceived Child is subject to two years imprisonment." The bill hastens to say that this doesn't include "the mother of the conceived child"--an exception that is a victory for Barbara Labuda and other members of Parliament who have fought this law for three years. But this exemption of women is also a reminder of the underlying insult inherent in all antiabortion legislation: the refusal to see women as adult moral and social agents. Under the new Polish law, doctors who do abortions are criminals, while women are mere adjuncts to them and to "the conceived child."

Another murky provision in the law seems to say that someone who beats a pregnant woman and hurts her "conceived child" can be sent to jail for up to eight years. In this configuration, violence against women is redefined as a crime against the unborn.

In a meager victory for the besieged pro-choice forces, the bill does list several circumstances when public hospital doctors (never private ones) may perform abortions: if several doctors agree that the pregnancy is a serious danger to a woman's life or physical health, if a prosecutor finds that a pregnancy is the result of a crime, if tests (that run no risk of causing miscarriage) show a serious and irreversible genetic defect (the language here seems to say that only those with good reason to fear such defects may get such tests) and if, in an emergency, a woman's life can be saved only by sacrificing her pregnancy.

This language of exceptions creates the illusion of availability, but most abortions do not fall under any of these headings. A woman who chooses abortion is usually making a judgment about her general situation--the shape of her current life, her economic circumstances and her private assessment of the pregnancy's meaning. This kind of abortion--without legal restrictions--has been available to Polish women, free in public hospitals under Communism, since 1956. Poland's new abortion law is, along with Ireland's, the strictest in all Europe. Although many have tried, no other post-Communist parliament has succeeded in criminalizing an entitlement commonly available in the West. How could such a fundamental, longstanding right come to be lost?

The influence of the Catholic Church has been decisive. It has shown its hand not only in the passage of the draconian abortion law but also in laws against "un-Christian values" on television and radio, and in decrees reinstating religious education. …