Poland is one of the most pro-life countries in Europe. While a staggering one-third of pregnancies in Europe end in abortion, Poland has become increasingly anti-abortion, with 76% of Poles between the ages of 15 and 24 favoring a total ban on abortion.
I knew that (sort of)–yet it took this map to really focus my attention on the stark contrast between Poland, with its majority Catholic population, and the surrounding nations. Poland, with an abortion rate below 1.9%, is shown in BLUE, sharply contrasted against Russia’s 30-49% (shown in RED).
Why, I wondered, has Poland remained staunchly pro-life, in the face of secular pressures which have taken hold in the rest of Europe? Could the influence and the clear teaching of the Catholic Church be responsible?
Historically, abortion legislation has see-sawed in Poland, depending on the prevailing political party.
- Before 1932, abortion was banned with no exceptions.
- In 1932, the Penal Code was revised to permit abortion when there were medical reasons and, for the first time in Europe, when the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act (such as rape or incest).
- In 1956 the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) legalized abortion in cases where the woman was experiencing “difficult living conditions.”
- The definition of “difficult living conditions” changed through time–from a restrictive interpretation in the late 1950s, to a broad liberalization in the 1960s and ’70s, when abortion was permitted on request.
- After the fall of Communism, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches pressured the government to ban abortion except to save the life of the mother. Left-wing politicians opposed this measure, and sought to preserve the 1956 legislation.
- In January 1993, Poland enacted an abortion law (called the “Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion”) which represented a compromise between the two camps.
- In 1997, the Polish Parliament enacted a modification to the abortion bill, permitting the termination of pregnancy in cases of “emotional or social distress.” However, this law was deemed unconstitutional by the Polish Constitutional Court. In December of that year, the legal status of abortion in Poland was restored to the 1993 ruling.
Under the current “compromise” law, abortion is banned in Poland except in the following three circumstances.
- When the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy,
- When the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or
- When the fetus is seriously malformed.
There are several other provisions of law which are worth noting:
- Although abortion is banned, there is no penalty for a woman who undergoes an illegal abortion. However, persuading a woman to pursue an illegal abortion is a criminal act, as is performing the illegal abortion.
- A medical doctor must provide written consent for abortion in cases where the woman’s life or health is at risk, or when the fetus is malformed. If the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, a prosecutor must certify before an abortion can be performed.
- In the case of a minor who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion, parental consent is always required.
The issue remains a thorny one. In June 2011, Polish anti-abortion NGOs collected over 500,000 signatures for a proposed bill to ban abortion in Poland altogether. The bill, while rejected by a majority of the MPs, got enough support to be send to a Sejm committee in order to be subject to further amendments. Two right-wing opposition parties, the Law and Justice and Poland Comes First, criticized the move and expressed support for the bill. The left-wing Democratic Left Alliance opposes the bill and pursues a pro-abortion policy. There remains division among the ruling party: More than 60 MPs voted in support of the bill.