A Catholic medical association appealed to Poland’s new prime minister Sunday to abandon plans to introduce abortion on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
In a Feb. 4 message addressed to Donald Tusk, who took office in December 2023, the Catholic Association of Polish Physicians (KSLP) described the push to liberalize Poland’s abortion laws as “an attack on the lives of innocent children, the health of women and the dignity of families, the well-being of our country, and the physical and moral health of future generations.”
The physicians’ message came days after Poland’s bishops discussed their stance on the denial of Communion to pro-abortion politicians, and bishops’ conference president Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki urged “all people of good will to speak unequivocally in favor of life.”
A pro-life outlier
Poland currently has one of Europe’s strongest pro-life laws. Abortion is legal only when there is a risk to the mother’s life and in cases of rape or incest.
It was previously also legal in cases of severe and irreversible disability or a life-threatening incurable disease. But Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled in October 2020 that the provision was unconstitutional.
That judgment sparked mass protests in cities across Poland, directed principally at the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which then led the country. Protesters also targeted the Catholic Church, which welcomed the ruling, disrupting Masses, daubing graffiti on Church property, and vandalizing statues of the Polish pope St. John Paul II.
The number of legal abortions in Poland reportedly fell by 90% in the year after the court ruling, from 1,076 to 107, in a country of around 40 million people.
Tusk led a political alliance called the Civic Coalition (KO) into the election against the United Right alliance, composed of PiS and smaller parties. The United Right won most seats, but PiS was unable to form a governing coalition. The Civic Coalition joined the Third Way (TD) and The Left (Lewica) parties to form a majority coalition government, with Tusk as prime minister.
Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at England’s University of Sussex, said it was important to grasp the diversity of the new coalition to understand the current battle over Poland’s abortion law.
“Poland’s new governing coalition is very ideologically and programmatically heterogeneous, ranging from economic and social liberals, agrarians, centrists, social democrats through to moderate social conservatives,” he told The Pillar in a Feb. 6 email.
“It contains three main groupings: the liberal-centrist Civic Platform, the eclectic Third Way coalition, and The Left, each of which themselves comprises, or was elected at the head of, alliances of several parties.”
Szczerbiak, the author of the Polish Politics Blog, went on: “It is moral-cultural rather than socio-economic issues that are the most problematic and divisive for the new government, particularly the question of abortion.”
“Many commentators felt that the huge protests against the Constitutional Tribunal’s October 2020 ruling was a key turning point in the previous right-wing Law and Justice government’s slump in support, from which it never really recovered and which culminated in its election defeat last October.”
“As a consequence, this issue has assumed huge symbolic importance for many of the new government’s supporters.”
Szczerbiak noted that while there is a consensus within the coalition that the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling should be reversed, there are deep divisions over the further liberalization of the country’s abortion law, which dates back to a 1993 law known as the “abortion compromise.”
The law, passed during the pontificate of John Paul II, ended the permissive approach to abortion promoted by Poland’s Communist regime, which ruled the country from 1947 to 1989. In 1990, the New York Times reported that there were between 600,000 and one million abortions in the country per year.
Szczerbiak highlighted the divisions over abortion within Poland’s new governing coalition.
“Civic Platform and The Left are committed to liberalizing the law to allow abortion, more or less on demand, up to the 12th week of pregnancy,” he said. “But the Third Way wants a return to the much more restrictive so-called abortion ‘compromise’ that existed before the tribunal ruling, together with a national referendum on the issue.”
The Third Way is led by Szymon Hołownia, the new speaker of the Polish parliament’s lower house, who sought to enter the Dominican order before becoming a television personality and then a politician. The party is composed of the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and Hołownia’s liberal-centrist Poland 2050 (PL2050) grouping.
Szczerbiak said that Hołownia was “now much more liberal than the Church hierarchy in Poland, and appears to be breaking with orthodox Church teaching on some important moral-cultural issues such as state recognition of same-sex couples, but is still opposed to liberalizing the abortion law beyond the pre-2020 status quo ante.”
In 2020, a priest reportedly refused to give Hołownia Communion, but the parish later expressed regret for the incident.
Szczerbiak underlined that the Third Way’s call for a return to the pre-2020 “abortion compromise” and a referendum is opposed by other members of the ruling coalition who support a sweeping liberalization of the abortion law.
“But without the support of the Third Way, the new governing coalition does not currently have enough votes to get liberalization of the abortion law through parliament,” he said.
“Some Poland 2050 deputies [members of the lower house of parliament] may well end up voting for this, but virtually all Peasant Party deputies will vote against.”
He added: “Given its electoral base, the Peasant Party is much more likely to be influenced by the need to maintain good relations with local clergy.”
A secularizing society
The abortion debate follows the publication of data suggesting that Poland is undergoing rapid secularization.
In 2013, 401 new diocesan priests were ordained in Poland. In 2022, there were 217.
The “Church in Poland 2023” report, published last September, identified a stark generational divide in religious practice. It said that the decline in Mass-going among young people was so severe that “one can even speak of a disruption of the intergenerational transmission of faith, which until now has been one of the hallmarks of Polish identity.”
The Church was perceived as close to the Law and Justice government, which ruled Poland from 2015 to 2023, though bishops sought to distance themselves from its policies on issues such as immigration.
Bishops’ conference president Archbishop Gądecki was recently drawn into an intense political drama surrounding the jailing of two Law and Justice party members following the change of government.
Szczerbiak said: “Within the context of a secularizing society where the Church hierarchy has much less influence, particularly with the new government, in certain regions and demographic groups — older, less well-off, less well-educated Poles living in rural areas and small towns, particularly in southern and eastern provinces — levels of religiosity remain high and the local clergy, if not necessarily the Church hierarchy, retain influence as popular local community leaders, and moral and ethical authority figures.”
Three abortion bills
In late December 2023, Tusk said that as prime minister he would seek a “friendly but definitive separation of state and Church.”
“You know my view: if we free the Church from political power and from public money, it will only benefit the Church,” he commented. “I am convinced that many Church people share this view.”
It is also likely to consider a reduction in state-funded religion classes and changes to a system known as the Church Fund, through which the government finances religious associations recognized under Polish law, including the Catholic Church.
The bill would require all healthcare providers receiving public funding for the care of pregnant women to offer abortions.
It would also introduce “additional regulations” concerning the country’s conscience clause. If a doctor declines to provide an abortion, the head of department would be obliged to identify another doctor who is willing to provide it.
The ruling coalition’s challenges on abortion are not only internal but also external. Poland’s current President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the Law and Justice party, has described himself as “a very strong defender of life” and an opponent of abortion.
Szczerbiak pointed out that even if parliament passed a bill liberalizing abortion, Duda could veto it. A presidential veto can be overridden with a three-fifths parliamentary majority, but that kind of majority does not exist on abortion, Szczerbiak said.
Duda can also refer legislation to the Constitutional Tribunal before or after it comes into effect. Poland’s 1997 constitution declares that “the Republic of Poland shall ensure the legal protection of the life of every human being.”
Szczerbiak said: “I would expect that [Duda] would simply veto any attempt to introduce abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and that he would refer a bill to return to the pre-2020 situation to the Constitutional Tribunal, which, given its current composition, would strike it down.”
“This is one of the reasons why the new government may end up holding a referendum on the issue after all, as a way of putting additional political pressure on Mr. Duda. At that point, the key issue becomes what the referendum question is. Opinion polling shows that Polish attitudes on this issue vary greatly depending upon the wording of the question, particularly if the phrase ‘abortion on demand’ is used.”
Having served as president for two terms, Duda is not eligible to stand in the next presidential election, which is scheduled for May 2025.