Poland and Abortion

About Filip Mazurczak 55 ArticlesFilip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

Billboards in Kraków for “Perinatal Hospices.” (Image courtesy of the author)

While Argentina legalized abortion on demand until fourteen weeks after gestation and the United States has inaugurated what will unquestionably be a very pro-abortion presidency, Poland has bucked the international pro-abortion trend as its Constitutional Court has declared abortion in the case of “fetal malformation” unconstitutional. Poles encouraged by this victory cannot wallow in complacent satisfaction, however. Poland’s government must make haste in increasing state support for Poles with disabilities, while the Church and pro-life organizations have to start an aggressive campaign of educating society about abortion, a difficult task given the huge financial and political clout of the global pro-abortion movement. The 1990s, however, prove that they can do this.

A polarizing verdict

Since 2015, Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party has had its own president and a majority in the Sejm, the lower chamber of Parliament (it lacks a majority in the Senate, but this has not appreciably affected its ability to rule). Not all Poles, however, like Law and Justice, and over the past five and a half years Poland has been the site of many large-scale anti-government protests.

The most recent protests occurred in the fall of 2020. From 1993 until 2021, abortion has been legal in Poland only in three circumstances: when a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life or health, when it results from an illicit act such as rape or incest, and in the case of “fetal malformation.” In recent years, there have been about 1,000 legal abortions performed in Poland each year. The vast majority concern the third exception, a large number of which involve Down syndrome.

At the beginning of the current parliamentary term, which was inaugurated in the fall of 2019, a group of deputies from Law and Justice, the agrarian Polish People’s Party, and the alt-right Confederation party petitioned the Constitutional Court to see if abortion in the case of “fetal malformation” is constitutional.

On October 22, 2020, the Constitutional Court delivered its verdict: it is not. Large-scale protests in Polish cities followed. The current opposition, which has been in a state of perpetual crisis since 2015, since then losing six consecutive election cycles, quickly seized on the abortion issue to facilitate its return to power.

For many of my Polish Catholic friends and myself, the protests were very unpleasant to watch. During their peak, churches were vandalized and Masses were disrupted. Their leader, Marta Lempart, publicly incited such violations of the right to freely worship in a radio interview; for this as well as for inciting large-scale public protests among COVID-19 social distancing measures and abuses against policemen (whom she insulted using extremely vulgar language and whom she tried spitting at but ended up spitting on herself, as she had forgotten she was wearing an anti-COVID face-mask), she faces an eight-year prison term (the prosecutor’s office in Warsaw has found her guilty of numerous violations of the law).

The government responded to the protests by not publishing the court’s verdict (a necessary condition for it to become binding law) until a rationale was published. In the meantime, the abortion topic quickly disappeared from the Polish media, and the protests lost momentum, in part because even many pro-abortion Poles were disgusted by Lempart’s primitive, anti-social behavior.

The most controversial aspect of the ruling, which fueled the protests, concerned not Down syndrome but lethal fetal flaws. In the media maelstrom that followed, even some well-known Polish priests, nuns, and lay Catholic intellectuals argued that the law should not force women to giving birth of severely deformed children who are bound to die hours after birth. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, himself pro-life and a devout Catholic, tried to calm matters by proposing compromise legislation that would ban abortion in the case of disabilities such as Down or Turner syndrome, but allow it in the case of lethal flaws. The argument used was that giving birth to children with lethal flaws affects a woman’s psychological health, which would qualify abortions as legal.

In late January, the Constitutional Court published the rationale for its verdict, which makes it possible to enact such legislation as that proposed by the president. However, Law and Justice, which is split between its conservative and more centrist wings on this issue, has yet to subject Duda’s bill to a parliamentary vote.

What do public opinion surveys say?

No party can rule forever in a democratic system. While no one knows how long Law and Justice will govern, which depends on an infinite number of unpredictable factors, it will someday be replaced by another party. Many have questioned the legality of the nomination of several of the judges in Poland’s Constitutional Court. Thus, if a more liberal party came to power, it could question the 2020 abortion verdict on such grounds.

However, no one doubts the legality of the Constitutional Court in 1997 (whose then-chairman, Prof. Andrzej Zoll, is a harsh critic of Law and Justice’s reforms of the judiciary), which declared that abortion on demand, which the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance government had legalized in 1996, unconstitutional.

The only way, then, that a government of a different ideological hue than Law and Justice could legalize abortion on demand would be to change the Constitution. This requires 307 out of 460 votes in the Sejm; in my opinion, there is no way there could be a two-thirds pro-abortion majority in the Sejm in the coming decades.

Perhaps the only other possible way to make abortion legal without exception in Poland is through a referendum. While the sight of angry protestors vandalizing churches and lashing out in anger hatred in the fall was discouraging, the encouraging thing is that Poles overwhelmingly oppose abortion on demand.

According to a CBOS poll, Polish society overwhelmingly opposes abortion if a mother’s financial situation is difficult (69 to 20 percent) and when a woman simply does not want to have a child (73 to 18 percent), while Poles oppose aborting children with Down syndrome (by a ratio of 46 to 38 percent), although most support abortion in the other exceptions to the 1993 law. Even a poll for Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily founded by Solidarity’s left-wing which has been consistently anti-clerical and socially liberal since its founding in 1989, reveals that only 22 percent of Poles believe abortion should be legal on-demand in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy; 62 percent believe abortion should be legal only in the cases permitted by the 1993 law.

The idea of a referendum has been supported by the conservative wing of the opposition, such as the Polish People’s Party or Bronisław Komorowski, who was president from 2010 to 2015. If this were to happen, then Poles would likely overwhelmingly reject a permissive abortion regime, unlike the Republic of Ireland three years ago.

Everything depends on Civic Platform, the biggest opposition party, which ruled Poland in 2007-2015. The party’s leadership has tried to propose legalizing abortion on demand, but this has met with fierce backlash from its conservative wing. If Civic Platform wants to return to power, however, it should listen to Polish society, which overwhelmingly does not want such policies.

The time for greater federal assistance to Poles with disabilities

Many have argued that Poland’s government cares about people with disabilities when they are in the womb, but less so after they are born. This is not cynicism that should be easily dismissed, however: three years ago, the Polish parents of children with disabilities occupied the Parliament for more than a month. They demanded greater support from the state (benefits to parents with disabilities in Poland are very modest), that they continue to receive state assistance after their children turn eighteen, and that working parents may be eligible for such support. Yet the government refused to yield to their demands, claiming that the national budget simply could not afford them.

Since the Constitutional Court’s verdict was published, numerous politicians from Poland’s ruling government have stated that they are working on legislation to provide more generous support to families with children with disabilities. However, they have yet to deliver. What happened in 2018 left a very bitter taste in the mouths of Poles with disabilities and their caretakers, so the government will inevitably be accused of treating them instrumentally, of helping them not out of genuine concern for their hardship but as a way of trying to calm down stirred up social emotions in the aftermath of a polarizing court ruling.

If the government does deliver on its promises, however, in the long term it could provide the world with an inspiring alternative to treating disability through eugenics. In 2017, Iceland boasted that it was close to eliminating Down syndrome not thanks to advances in medicine and genetics, but through mass abortions. Through generous and comprehensive state assistance, Poland’s government could demonstrate that people with Down syndrome and other disabilities can live happy lives and that parents do not have to choose between aborting their children or bringing them into a hostile world where the state and society will not support them in their struggles.

A necessary education campaign

The recent Polish discussion on abortion was amazingly devoid of bioethical debate. Pro-abortion protesters shouted emotionally charged phrases like Piekło kobiet (“Women’s Hell”), which allowed them to conveniently skirt the subject of when human life begins. It is very telling that Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, one of the country’s more militant pro-abortion politicians (she is currently facing prosecution for having disrupted Masses at the height of the protest) said in an interview that a child’s heart starts beating after (sic) birth. (Kudos to the website To tylko teoria – “It’s Only a Theory” – for “awarding” Scheuring-Wielgus the “Biggest Biological Rubbish” “distinction” of 2020 for this statement.)

If abortion were not such an ideologically charged topic, saying such things would be the source of such mockery and outrage as being a flat-earther or Holocaust denier.

But money talks and the international pro-abortion movement has a lot of it. It enjoys the support of Brussels and the White House, many huge corporations, as well as George Soros. While the pro-life movement lacks such financial and political clout, it has much stronger weapons: science and reason.

A further difficulty is that in today’s increasingly atomized world, many people do not think for themselves on individual policy issues but instead blindly follow a prix fixe menu of often-inconsistent positions on a variety of unrelated issues offered by political parties and ideological labels.

Many people who participated in the protests do not really care about the issue of abortion per se; they simply dislike the government. Whatever the government does, they will react to its actions with knee-jerk hostility. In the case of the abortion ruling, this was especially so because since 2015 leading legal scholars have widely accused Poland’s Constitutional Court of not being independent of the government.

Still, from a purely materialist, biological perspective, the case against abortion is compelling, and it is high time for Poland’s pro-life movement to make it.

In Poland (just as in the United States and many other parts of the world), abortion is often presented as a Church-state issue. I find it fascinating from a sociological perspective that the same people who lash out at the Church for speaking out about abortion and, in their view, thus violating the separation of Church and state do not seem to mind when Pope Francis or numerous bishops condemn global warming, xenophobia, or human trafficking. Whether Jesus is actually present in the Eucharist, as Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe, or if Holy Communion is merely symbolic, as in the Protestant approach, is a religious question. So is if God exists at all or not, for that matter. However, one does not have to have any religious belief to acknowledge that just five to six weeks after gestation, the human heart starts beating and electrical brain activity can be detected.

One rare example of a secular Pole who opposed abortion on precisely such scientific grounds is the popular fantasy writer Jacek Piekara. He tweeted:

As an agnostic, I’m mad at rubbish that people who oppose abortion are religious fanatics, a kind of Catholic Taliban. In reality, opposition to abortion is merely witness to respect for human life in its most vulnerable and delicate form.

For this judicial victory to be permanent, Poland’s pro-life movement has to try to address people who are not practicing Catholics but, like Piekara, are willing to follow Socrates’ advice to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

In recent weeks, billboards depicting a heart-shaped womb with a baby in it have mushroomed all across Poland’s major cities. This is a campaign of the Our Children Foundation (Fundacja Nasze Dzieci) from Katowice, and it is exactly the type of campaign that can appeal to people who are on the fence on abortion and who are not necessarily devout Catholics. I would also recommend that Polish pro-lifers include basic facts about fetal development in future billboard campaigns.

Given the strength of the international pro-abortion juggernaut, educating society on bioethics is difficult. As we have seen, most polls show that Polish society today overwhelmingly opposes abortion on demand. However, this was not so in 1993: under communism, abortion was basically treated as a morally neutral form of birth control, and popular support for legal abortion was high. Yet Poland’s Catholic Church and pro-life organizations succeeded in changing hearts and illuminating minds, and support for abortion on demand took a nosedive. Thus, while building a pro-life consensus will not be easy, it is possible and not unprecedented.