Conscience rights fuel Poland abortion debate

A Polish doctor was fired from a state-run hospital in early July after refusing to perform or facilitate the abortion of a deformed child due to reasons of conscience, according to Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

The refusal of Dr. Bogdan Chazan, a Catholic and director of Holy Family Hospital, was illegal in the traditionally Catholic country, which allows for abortion in cases of rape, incest or irreparable fetal damage, or when a woman’s health and life are judged in danger.

The incident is the most recent in an ongoing debate pitting supporters of the country's traditional Catholic beliefs against the rising tide of secularism. In May, a former friend of Pope St. John Paul II put fuel on the fire within the late pontiff's home country when she called on medical professionals to sign a “Declaration of Faith” reaffirming the rights of conscience of doctors and medical students.

Wanda Poltawska’s statement, lodged in stone tablets at Poland’s Jasna Gόra Sanctuary of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, was signed by more than 3,000 medical professionals. “The Catholic Church still wields great influence in our pluralistic society and intervenes regularly on issues like this,” said Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a Catholic presenter with Polish Radio. “So this conflict isn’t just about abortion, but also about the Church’s involvement in our national life.”

Conscience protection

Aside from the aforementioned exceptions, abortions were banned in Poland in 1993, and the country became the world’s first to switch from a permissive to a restrictive abortion regime. The ruling cut legally registered terminations from 82,000 in 1989, the final year of communist rule, to just 168 nationwide in 1999.

Although attempts have been made to change the law, these have been fought off by Church and pro-life groups, while Poland’s bishops have threatened to deny sacraments to politicians supporting liberalization.

Although still few in comparison with Poland’s neighbors, legal abortions in the country have increased again in the past decade, while the abortion issue has been kept in the news by high-profile cases like that of Alicja Tysiac, who was awarded damages by the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 for eyesight damage suffered when she was refused a termination.

In a letter to doctors and medical students, Poltawska said she believed her declaration would enable Polish health experts to “show contemporary civilization that threatened Christian values really can be defended.”

The 250-word document says “the human body and life, being a gift from God, are sacred and inviolable,” making abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, euthanasia and in vitro fertilization a “rape of the Ten Commandments” and “rejection of the Creator.” It calls on doctors to have consciences “enlightened by the Holy Spirit and Church teaching,” to recognise “the primacy of God’s law over human law” and to “resist the imposed anti-humanitarian ideologies of contemporary civilisation.”

The declaration is backed “wholeheartedly” by Poland’s Catholic Bishops Conference. “A doctor inspired by the Polish pope-saint can only be a better doctor, more sensitive to human suffering, more competent and responsible in fulfilling their service to the sick,” the conference’s Health Service Commission noted in a statement.

However, critics said the declaration encouraged health workers to flout Poland’s 1996 and 2011 laws, which require doctors opting out of performing abortions to notify patients promptly where they can obtain the same services elsewhere.

Poland’s liberal premier, Donald Tusk, joined the debate, calling on doctors to put their obligation to patients and the law above their religious beliefs.

The Polish Church’s Catholic information agency, KAI, admits there are legal ambiguities as to whether rights of conscience can apply to individuals only or to whole institutions. But similar rights are protected in the United States, the agency noted in a lengthy analysis, under the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, as well as under a 2008 Health Department ruling. They’re also included in the constitutions and laws of most of the European Union’s 28 member-states and endorsed by international instruments such as the EU’s 2007 Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Ongoing debate

Poland’s legal experts are divided. Some believe doctors at state-owned institutions should have fewer opt-out rights than private staffers. Others, such as Andrzej Zoll, a former Constitutional Court president, think freedom of conscience is a basic right for everyone, guaranteed under Article 53 of Poland’s constitution, and should also enable doctors to avoid informing patients where they can get abortions. 

Divisions have appeared even within the Polish Church. While organizations such as Catholic Action and the country’s Association of Moral Theologians have backed the conscience rights of doctors, the Church’s best-known ethics expert has urged them to obey the law and not seek to prevent abortions when they are legally permitted. 

Father Andrzej Szostek, himself a former pupil of the pope, later clarified his comments to the Polish Press Agency, insisting he, too, supported Poltawska’s declaration. But, he added, if Catholic doctors felt unable to tell women where they could obtain abortions, they shouldn’t be working in state hospitals. Szostek’s remarks provoked angry reactions, with at least one top Catholic commentator accusing him of “helping murderers” and calling for a funding boycott of the Catholic University of Lublin, where he works.

However, another Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, also criticized the “jaunty wording” and “poor theology” of the declaration, and deplored the “aggression” directed by Catholic groups against fellow Catholics who showed “even a hint of insubordination or free thought.”

The issue has been only the latest to spark public controversy in Poland. The Catholic bishops have also vigorously opposed calls by the Tusk government for the legalisation of in vitro fertilization, and they launched a campaign in 2013 against the spread of “gender ideology.” In a pastoral letter last September, they also condemned the provision of sex education in schools and urged parents and educators to take a stand against it.

“We’re witnessing how they try to plant their roots in Polish soil — various libertarian streams, emerging from the French Revolution and positivist philosophy, in which there’s no place for God,” one archbishop, Msgr. Slawoj Glodz of Gdansk, told Catholics in his June 19 homily.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.