Politics & Policy

Why Progressive Catholics Fear Poland’s Proposed Abortion Ban

Protesting proposed abortion laws in Krakow, April 3, 2016. (Lukasz Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

Liberal secularists are always up in arms about abortion. They see it not as the slaughter of innocents but as a great symbol of social and economic advancement for women. In the U.S., abortion in most states is legal up to the moment of birth. Throughout the U.K., it’s legal up to the 24th week of gestation. Pro-abortion-rights advocates in both countries get especially nervous about their liberal confrères in the European Union, where abortion is legal only to the twelfth week. So naturally, they have been on maneuvers about Poland.

Once a Communist nation that permitted abortion on demand, Poland is now a more Catholic country in its culture and even public policy. In 1993, Poland instituted a law that not only restricts abortion to the twelfth week, as most EU nations do, but permits it only in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality, or grave threat to the life of the mother. Since 2011, anti-abortion Poles have been lobbying for a total ban, gaining millions of signatures, and proposing several bills, all of which have failed to secure a majority in parliament.

But what really worries abortion-rights activists now is that a socially conservative, Christian-democratic coalition — the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or the PiS, the Law and Justice Party — has come to power. It holds the majority in parliament and also happens to support the total ban on abortion. And since 90 percent of the country is Catholic, it’s not surprising that many of them support the ban precisely because it conforms to the Church’s perennial teaching about the sanctity of all human life, teaching that the Polish bishops have courageously championed in public.

You’d think that the prospect of a total ban on abortion in Poland posed some sort of existential threat to the liberal secularists in Britain and America who have trotted out their great parade of horribles, including invented bugaboo tales about back alleys, coat hangers, criminalization, and the omnipresent but wholly imagined threat of “theocracy.” Yet if such legislation were to pass, Poland would be the first EU nation to ban abortion totally, thereby setting a precedent and a benchmark and showing that it is possible in a civilized world not to kill innocent children in the womb of their mothers, or anywhere else. That would indeed be a major blow to abortion as the jewel in the liberal-secularist crown of progressive human rights.

What is often overlooked, however, is why a socially conservative, Christian-democratic party would have come to power at all in Poland. Michał Łuczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, explained in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that young people are increasingly turning to conservatism as “a form of resistance against the old system,” implying a continuum between Communism and the liberal democratic welfare-state politics that came after it. Łuczewski, a Catholic, also noted that since the fall of Communism in 1989, “the establishment in Poland was more or less liberal, so the revolt against it can’t be liberal, too.” Most Poles support the already restrictive 1993 abortion law largely because they see abortion not as a human right but as the slaughtering of innocents. But now there is a genuinely democratic movement afoot to ban abortion completely in Poland, and it is described as “theocratic,” or as the Church’s intervening in politics.

Most Poles support the already restrictive 1993 abortion law largely because they see abortion not as a human right but as the slaughtering of innocents.

Another Catholic sociologist, Tina Beattie of the University of Roehampton, joined by other academics and “concerned Catholics,” has sent to the Polish bishops’ conference a letter in which she opposes the proposed abortion ban. The letter opens with a perfunctory statement of “respect” for the Church’s teaching on abortion but then immediately advances a request to “engage in dialogue” about “a woman’s freedom of conscience” to choose abortion. While “personally opposed” to abortion, Beattie opens her letter by pointing to “the Catholic tradition’s distinction between morality and legality,” rightly noting that the Church has at times prudently counseled that not everything immoral should be criminalized under civil law.

Throughout the letter, Beattie makes the liberal-secularist assumption that Poland’s laws are now in the hands of bishops (“theocracy”!), so she makes her appeal to freedom of conscience (“a woman’s right to choose”!), on the basis of Mary’s Fiat. Beattie writes: “When God chose Mary to become the mother of His Son, He did so not by force or compulsion but by invitation and request. Mary was free in deciding whether or not to conceive a child. Many women and girls do not enjoy such freedom.”

Here we see the utter confusion at work. On the one hand Beattie wants to protect “a woman’s right to choose” as somehow connected to natural rights, quite apart from the Church’s revealed wisdom. On the other hand, she implies that “a woman’s right to choose” is revealed to us most perfectly in the Blessed Mother’s free choice to say yes to the child Jesus. It’s difficult to decide which rationale is more disturbing: that there is a reasonable justification for killing any innocent, healthy child in utero, or that the Blessed Mother herself could have made the choice to kill Jesus in her sacred womb.

There’s no rational basis for arguing that “early, safe and legal abortion is essential,” and there’s actually plenty of evidence in Poland that abortion bans do indeed “save the lives of unborn children.” Tina Beattie wants abortion to be safe and legal in Poland, and moreover she wants the Church to say it should be safe and legal. Why? Apparently because the Church makes a distinction between law and morality, and because “free will.” Of course, the Church makes lots of distinctions, but very often the teaching of the Church distinguishes to unite. Not everything immoral should be illegal. Unfortunately, Beattie does not counsel a distinction between law and morality. Rather, she seeks to sever the relationship between law and the common good. Her counsel is almost indistinguishable from that of the liberal secularist: The Church should stay out of politics and leave abortion laws alone.

Beattie’s letter does not represent a stand for the intrinsic dignity of every human being. She makes a stand for individual rights conferred rather than recognized by the state. She makes a stand not for Mary’s Fiat but for Eve’s turn away from freedom. The progressive Catholic, like the liberal secularist, stands on the long branch of the human-rights tradition while at the same time sawing off the common good of human existence from which all other rights and responsibilities flow. What must be recognized here is not an authentically Catholic protest but one that is Catholic in name only. The progressive Catholic protest letter will be gleefully received by liberal secularists — who will recognize their own view with “Catholic branding” — but it will be obvious to bishops that there is no dialogue to be had with them.

The greatest fear of the liberal secularist and dissenting Catholic alike is of being on the wrong side of history. Whatever happens with Poland’s exemplary abortion laws, it remains that a self-governing republic has recognized that its common good depends on what is due to the dignity of every human being. That might be about the most hopeful sign coming out of the right side of Europe today.