This week it emerged that a hospital in the city of Białystok in Poland refused to grant an abortion to a pregnant woman, even though her baby had no chance of survival. The abortion was requested because of the woman’s psychological state after learning about the foetus’s prospects. Although two psychiatrists confirmed she had severe depression, the hospital said this did not meet the level of risk required for an abortion under Polish law, after a ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal last year made it illegal for doctors to carry out abortions unless a woman’s life is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result rape or incest.
Overnight, the woman’s case became the latest flashpoint in a fierce debate raging in Poland over the country’s strict abortion laws and the role of faith in Polish politics. Poland’s United Right government has made headlines for questioning the primacy of the European Court of Justice and raising the possibility of a ‘Polexit’ from the EU in recent weeks. Yet domestically at least, this pales in comparison to the abortion debate which is raging inside the country.
The latest controversy followed nationwide demonstrations in November, when it emerged that a pregnant woman had died from septic shock after doctors refused to carry out an abortion despite fatal defects in the foetus. Various attempts to restrict abortion throughout the current government’s reign have been met with fierce protests, and demonstrations turned violent in Warsaw when the new law was finally introduced in 2020.
Ever since Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled last October that abortions were banned, critics of the law have argued that it is in hock to the government and its ultra-conservative allies. In its ruling, the tribunal interpreted the constitution’s reference to ‘protection of life’ as including prenatal life. Opponents called the ruling a ‘broad interpretation of this provision which is not covered by its content.’
They have also attacked the government’s supposed sway over the tribunal’s judges. There certainly have been a number of procedural irregularities since the United Right took power in 2015, with rulings on abortion and the primacy of EU law attacked by the European Parliament and domestic opponents as the ‘illegal’ rulings of an ‘illegitimate’ body.
But there are inconsistencies in these arguments. The tribunal may have a ‘monopoly’ on interpretating the constitution – as some Polish legal scholars have pointed out – but the function of a constitutional court is to make a binding judgements on constitutional matters.
And portraying the tribunal as lacking in legitimacy is a convenient way of avoiding the real issue at stake in the abortion dispute: the proper role of religion in a 21st century democracy where faith continues to play a major part in everyday life.
In their summary when refusing the abortion in Białystok, doctors referenced the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, an influential Polish Catholic NGO, which argues that damage to mental health should not be considered grounds for abortion. In doing so, the doctors inadvertently revealed the power wielded by Christian groups in Poland to influence the country’s abortion laws.
The abortion law is the clearest example yet of recent Polish government attempts to implement policies inspired by traditional religious values. This is no arbitrary political whim – over 90 per cent of the Polish population is Catholic. Yet from abortion restrictions to a crackdown on LGBT rights, this religious conservatism is leading Poland along a path which is anathema both to the EU and to the more progressive parts of the country’s own population.
As thousands of women flee the country for abortions abroad, Poland seems to many to be breathing life back into an old religious intolerance which has no place in modern Europe. Yet these portrayals – encouraged by the EU, which has condemned the abortion law as ‘an attack on the European community of values’ – rely on a historical narrative which is uniquely unsuited to Poland’s history.
In western countries, the shedding of religion’s influence over policy making is seen as part of a historical shift towards the secular and enlightenment ideals of freedom and democracy. But in Poland (and to a far greater extent than in other ex-eastern-bloc states) religion itself became symbolic of those same ideals during twentieth-century Communist rule. Freedom from Communism also meant freedom of faith – which, for most Poles, meant freedom to be Catholic.
When St. John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, was elected pontiff in 1978, the Polish Pope came to symbolise the sense of alienation – and yearning for spiritual freedom – closely linked to the authorities’ suppression of Catholicism. When he arrived in Warsaw for the first visit by a Pope to a Communist country a year later, hundreds of thousands saw him lay down a challenge to Communist leaders in the city’s Victory Square – and his famous exhortation to ‘be not afraid’ continues to resonate with the Polish faithful to this day.
Opponents of the government believe Poland is trying to backpedal away from freedom and democracy. But they fail to understand that many in the country understand these concepts in a radically different light. If Poland is not moving in the conventional direction along the pathway of ‘European values,’ on contentious topics from abortion to LGBT rights, it is because the nation’s Christian conservatives do not believe it was ever on that path in the first place. And until western Europe begins to understand this reality, the ideological and spiritual rift will only get wider.
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