In Poland, the abortion law proves the influence of the Church is still strong, Edward Horton found
A YEAR AFTER THE Polish parliament passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, abortion remains a contentious issue in Polish society.
The law allows abortion after rape or incest, when a mother's life or health is endangered and when prenatal tests show that a foetus is seriously malformed the law excludes social and economic factors as reasons for legal abortion. Doctors guilty of breaking the law face two years in prison and up to ten years if the woman dies.
Despite these restrictions and penalties, Jaroslaw Govin, the editor of the Catholic monthly Znak believes in the present shape the law is far from what the Church had expected: "The law is far less restrictive that the Episcopate had assumed. At first the Church aimed at a law which would forbid abortion regardless of any medical or social considerations. Then their standing became a little less rigid if the mother s life was in danger," he said.
Fr Wojeciech Giertych, a Polish Dominican priest from Krakow, is relatively satisfied with the legislation but he wants to see the law go further still.
He maintained: "Compared to the 1950s this
act is a step forward towards the complete prohibition of abortion but the law allows abortion in certain cases which the Church cannot morally accept."
Since the law was passed there has been an increase in the number of women who have gone abroad to terminate their pregnancies.
Entrepeneurs have seized the opportunity to make money by starting small businesses which offer trips abroad to have abortions, advertising their services in the press as "healthy holidays".
The agencies are making a huge profit from the hundreds of women who seke their services each month. Wealthy women can afford to take trips to Germany and Holland which cost about £350 ten times the average monthly wage in Poland.
The majority of the women have to settle with a journey to places like Kalingrad in Russia, where the conditions are terrible but the price is more affordable at £125£150.
Barbara Labuda, an MP and outspoken critic of the Church, is campaigning for the law to be changed, saying: "I am fighting for women who are in a difficult situation. I want women to have access to safe abortions," she explained. "They arc forced to travel to places like Kahngrad where they suffer awful conditions. Women must have the right to abortion in Poland.
Under communism abortion was Poland's principal form of birth control, with an estimated 600,00 abortions performed a year.
A survey last year showed that 73 per cent of Polish women admitted. to having unplanned pregnancies.
Ms Labuda attributes this to the lack of sex education and blames the Church for its undue influence in Polish society. "In theory, access to birth control is open and unrestricted but in reality the total lack of sex education means people don't know where to buy contraceptives and which ones to use. Also the Church openly discourages the use of contraception and women are afraid to buy them," she claimed.
Critics accuse the Church of being too involved in the political arena and they point to the abortion law as an example of the Church's influence over parliament. Ms Labuda goes further claiming the Church is a threat to democracy in Poland: "A lot of MPs are connected with the Church as an institution and they act at its behest. The legislation was forced through the Church."
However, Mr Govin believes these claims are an exaggeration: "The influen of the Church has been vastl over-estimated. The debate about the abortion law seem to have been one of the mor honest .political discussion in Poland which means views mattered more than political games. The act passed lasf march was the result of a skillful political and social compromise."
While Fr Giertych reject the accusation about the Church's excessive influence on politics, he recognises i weight in social issues. "Th vast majority of the popula tion are Catholics an although not all accept thl values the Church holds, i has an important influenc in Polish social life and thi obviously has considerable political consequences."
With the Church pushing harder to impose its views on the Government, the Pope issued a statement on the eve of his trip to Poland in 1991 equating abortion with the genocide of the Jews.
Those fighting to change the penal code will face strong opposition from the Church. Mr Govin contends that the Government will not alter the law for fear of alienating the Church. "The Government wili
avoid any move that will upset the Church because they want to avoid open conflict. If the law is changed the Church in response might wish to enter the political arena and move closer to the right."
For many people this suggests that the Church still enjoys political clout in Polish society but Mr Govin feels it is an example of the Church's S social rather than political influence. But opponents of the law consider it will be relaxed so as to allow a woman in "difficult circumstances" to terminate her pregnancy before the end of the 12th week.
However, Ms Labuda is aware of the difficulties she and her supporters face: "I asked parliament to change this law and of course the Church reacted badly to it. We face a big fight from the Church because they will never accept a more liberal abortion law."
Women will continue to have illegal abortions in backstreet clinics or take "health holidays" abroad, but whatever the outcome of the legislation to change the law, the abortion issue will continue to divide Polish society and expose the Church to accusations that it is too involved in the body politic.