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A history of abortion in Poland

Posted by Rhoslyn Thomas on 29 August 2014

Contemporary Poland is characterised as having one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the European Union.

However, this was not always the case, and the history of abortion in Poland can be divided into three main stages: firstly, the interwar period, then over 40 years under the Communist regime and finally the post-communist period since 1989.

The beginnings of the Polish debate on abortion started after 1918, when Polish people restored their own sovereign state. In the year 1932, after a heated debate, a new law was enforced that allowed abortions to be performed if there were medical reasons indicating that the pregnancy endangered the life of the woman. Poland was also one of the first countries to accept abortion in the case of pregnancies that were the result of a criminal act, such as rape.

On 9 March 1943, Adolf Hitler introduced, for the first time in Polish history, abortion on demand. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and head of the Party chancellery said, “The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we do not need them, they may die. Slav fertility is not desirable.”(Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s who in Nazi Germany (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 19). This also explains why, at the same time, abortion for German women was strictly forbidden. After the Second World War, all laws enacted by the Nazis were annulled and the state reverted to the norms held before the war.

For the second time, abortion on demand was legalized on April 27th, 1956 by the Parliament members, imposed by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Dr Wanda Poltawska, one of the Polish pro-life movement icons, recalls the events from 1956: "After the legalization of abortion , there were women standing in long queues outside the hospitals to kill their babies. We were completely devastated." Although devastated, she and many others actively engaged in the protection of the unborn child and from that time, the real outbreak of pro-life movement activities in Poland started. All pro-life initiatives which were taken at that time were strongly connected with the Catholic Church, which provided them with protection and in fact enabled them to function in society, because no civil movement or action could survive without the permission of the government. Under the supervision of churches and parishes, the family-marriage health centres started to flourish. The centres were concerned with promoting a pro-life attitude by teaching natural family planning, promoting adoption, providing large families with material and spiritual help and also helping unmarried pregnant women to deal with their pregnancies and motherhood. The interesting fact is that not only did many pro-life activists from that time work in the medical profession, but also a significant number of them were prisoners of Nazi Concentration Camps during the Second World War.

For example, Dr Poltawska  was arrested at age 19 for her involvement in the Polish resistance movement during the war. She was imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp and used as a guinea pig in pseudo-medical experiments carried out by the German doctors. During her time in the camp, she promised herself that if she survived, she would pledge herself to the cause of Life by becoming a doctor. Shortly after the war, she sought a priest for spiritual guidance to help her deal with her traumatic experiences. In the ancient royal city of Cracow, in the church of St. Florian, a young Father Wojtyla heard her confession, and for the first time she felt that someone understood her; this confession marked the beginning of an unusual friendship between her and the future Pope John Paul II.

Dr Poltawska, as a psychiatrist, was a specialist in family issues and together with her husband Andrzej, a philosopher, they made important contributions to Wojtyla’s thought on family matters and his works, such as Love and Responsibility. When Wojtyla became Bishop and then Cardinal of Cracow, she assisted him in founding the Institute of the Theology of the Family at the curia for which she was a Chancellor for over 30 years. Dr Poltawska often emphasises that she and the future Pope “…were united over the common goal. We wanted to save the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of marriage. And Karol Wojtyla desperately wanted all people to be saved.’’.

The courageous, non-violent witness of Poles like Poltawska also shaped John Paul’s engagement with the ‘culture of death’; Poltawska was in fact Wojtyla’s ‘window’ into women. However, his view on the role of women was also influenced by Polish historical and cultural roots . Following the loss of national sovereignty and the state in 1794, Polish women were actively involved in the national resistance movement and played many key roles following the defeat of the uprisings of 1830 and 1864. While men often went into political exile, died or were sent to Siberia, women would take care of the home and children whilst at the same time organising underground meetings for the resistance or taking up arms themselves. The upbringing of children became a key political issue as the family was seen as the main guarantee of national and independence values; the family was the place to raise young patriots who would continue the struggle for independence in the future. From this period, the Polish people derived symbolic ‘Mother Pole’ (Matka Polka) that is immortalised in literature and popular culture. ‘Mother Pole’ represents the identity of Polish women elevated through her motherhood and self-sacrificing service to others and her nation.

It is not surprising that pro-life and pro-family activities were the top priorities of Cardinal Wojtyla and the Polish Catholic Church in general under the Communist regime. They believed that only a strong family can be an effective tool in the struggle for national independence, just as it happened to be before. Years later, as a Pope, he made the pro-life message one of the main themes of his pontificate.

The massive amount of work done by the people engaged in the pro life movement paid off, even before the legislation was changed. According to the official statistics, from 1956 onwards, the number of abortions in Poland exceeded 200,000. After John Paul II’s first Papal visit to Poland, the number of abortions dropped from 220,431 in 1979 to 137,950 in 1980. 10 years later, in 1990, just a year after Poland gained independence, the number dropped to 59,417. The new law was successfully introduced in 1993 , when the ‘Abortion Law’ was changed to “Law on Family Planning, Defense of the Fetus and Acceptance of Pregnancy Terminations” , which restricted abortion “rights” to cases where a woman's “life or health” were endangered, when “very serious and irreparable fetal damage” was diagnosed, or when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. From that time, there was pressure from both the pro-abortion and pro-life lobby to change the legislation, but neither were successful. Debate on abortion remains one of the key elements of the Polish public life and tends to stir up emotions.

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope John Paul II instructed the world to "have no fear". Dr Wanda Poltawska , now 93, continues her life-long battle with no fear ; recently she wrote a ‘Declaration of Faith’ in gratitude for the canonisation of John Paul II. Nearly 4,000 doctors and nurses have signed the Declaration which started something of a ‘religious war’ on social media through internet petitions, because by signing the Declaration the signatories announced that their religious conscience would guide their professional life and that they are opposed to practices like abortion, euthanasia and in-vitro fertilization that serve as "imposed, anti-human ideologies of contemporary civilization’’. Shortly after that , Prof. Bogdan Chazan who also signed the Declaration , a gynaecologist and director of the Holy Family Hospital in Warsaw, refused, on grounds of conscientious objection to allow for the abortion of a child with severe abnormalities and as a result was dismissed from his post.

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