Pressure for abortion liberalization sparks Catholic protests in Europe

Amid plans by the government to liberalize abortion in the country, Poles organized a National March for Life in the capital, Warsaw, April 14, 2024, in which around 50,000 people participated. President of the Polish bishops' conference, Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda of Gdansk, called April 14 a "day of prayer in defense of conceived life" throughout the country. (OSV News photo/Pawel Kula, courtesy National March for Life)

(OSV News) -- Tens of thousands of Poles have joined church-backed street protests after legislators pressed ahead with plans to liberalize abortion in the traditionally Catholic country.

"As Poles responsible for our homeland's future and the rights of every person living under our republic's sovereign authority, we demand an immediate halt to subversive actions by the current government and its parliamentary majority against the inherent right to life confirmed in our constitution," protesters said in a resolution.

"The foundation for rights protected by our republic is the natural, inalienable and inviolable dignity of man, whose protection determines the authority and dignity of state and nation."

The resolution was adopted during an April 14 National March for Life, attended in Warsaw by over 50,000 people under the slogan "Niech Zyje Polska!" (“Long live Poland!").

Organizers said the rally -- which began with Masses in the capital's two Catholic cathedrals and included the relaying of an unborn child's heartbeat over loudspeakers -- was intended as "a social and civic event, but even more a moral event."

They added that the march, matched by a smaller mass demonstration in the northern port of Szczecin, would send "a very clear signal to act, concentrate forces and seek adequate answers" following an April 12 decision by Poland's Sejm lower house to refer four separate abortion-liberalizing bills to an emergency parliamentary commission.

Speaking after a two-day Sejm debate, Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, said the bills reflected "fundamental rights" and would reassure Polish women "they are not the object of attack, contempt or disregard, but truly becoming subjects who decide about themselves."

However, Polish media said the tabling of separate bills by parties in Tusk's coalition highlighted government divisions over abortion, adding that any liberalization was certain to be vetoed as unconstitutional by Poland's conservative president, Andrzej Duda, who blocked a government-backed law March 29 that would have allowed easy access to morning-after pills, without parental consent, for girls age 15 and over.

In an April 12 appeal, the newly elected president of the Polish bishops conference, Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda of Gdansk, backed the National March for Life and urged special prayers at all Sunday Masses.

"Respect for life is one of the most important values and basic duties of every human being," Archbishop Wojda said.

"Millions around the world are making constant efforts to protect human life, especially the most defenseless, conceived and unborn, and to show everyone its beauty and value. ... I trust the efforts of millions of people of goodwill will bring even greater protection," he added.

Poland's 1993 law allows abortions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life or health of a mother, and was tightened in October 2020 when the Constitutional Court removed a right to abortion in cases of "severe and irreparable fetal damage," sparking protests by women's groups.

Liberalization of the law, which also requires "all necessary help" for pregnant women and single mothers, was promised before Poland's Oct. 15 parliamentary election by Tusk's Civic Coalition, which also has pledged to restrict religious education, legalize same-sex partnerships and abolish state subsidies for churches.

The Polish protests came in the wake of an April 11 European Parliament resolution, calling for pregnancy terminations to be "completely depenalized" across the European Union's 27 member-states, and for "access to safe and legal abortion" to be included as a fundamental right in EU treaties and conventions.

The resolution, which passed 336-163 with 39 abstentions in the 705-member Parliament, condemned "regressive attempts" to restrict "sexual and reproductive health and rights," and said democracy and the rule of law were threatened in Europe by "ultra-conservative religious and far-right actors" who sought to "undo decades of human rights advances and impose a harmful worldview."

It praised a March 4 "landmark vote" by French lawmakers to make abortion a constitutional right, and deplored "backsliding on abortion rights" and "a pushback on gender equality" in Poland, the United States, Hungary and Malta, as well as continued restrictions in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Romania and Slovakia.

The resolution praised the Tusk government's commitment to propose new laws ensuring access to "abortion care," condemned the right of doctors and health care facilities to opt out of abortions, and demanded "safe and free contraceptive methods and means" in all EU countries.

In an April 9 statement, the Brussels-based Commission of EU Bishops' Conferences, COMECE, warned abortion could "never be a fundamental right," and said the resolution embodied an "ideological imposition" by failing to respect "the different cultures and traditions" of member-states, as well as their constitutions and "national competences."

"We work for a Europe where women can live their maternity freely, as a gift for them and for society, and where being a mother is in no way a limitation for personal, social and professional life," COMECE said.

"The EU cannot impose on others, inside and outside its borders, ideological positions on the human person, sexuality and gender, marriage and family etc. Nor can its Charter of Fundamental Rights include rights that are divisive and not recognized by all," it said.

Reacting to the April 11 vote, COMECE's Spanish secretary-general, Msgr. Manuel Barrios Prieto, told Vatican News the EU's bishops were "saddened" the abortion resolution had been backed by "representatives of parties referring to the tradition of Christian democracy," and would "appeal to the consciences of politicians and voters" in upcoming June 6-8 elections to the European Parliament.

The Brussels-based Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe accused members of the European Parliament of "using women as political pawns" and dismissed the Parliament vote as "cynical political posturing before the European elections", adding that no international court, including the European Court of Human Rights, recognized a "right to abortion."

Meanwhile, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, told Vatican News April 15 the vote signaled a "significant cultural regression, undermining societal values," adding that it had prioritized "self-interest over community welfare" and shown a "complete disregard for the rights of the unborn."

Bishops from COMECE are to meet for a spring plenary April 17-19 in the Polish city of Lomza, to mark the anniversary of the EU's 2004 enlargement into post-communist Eastern Europe.


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