Bill to ban abortions has Poles in frenzy as election draws near

November 18, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- The electorate is in uproar over it. The politicians are shying away from it. Clergymen are cursing it. Doctors are apprehensive.

The issue is abortion -- in particular, a new bill proposed by militant Roman Catholics aiming to ban every termination of pregnancy and punish the abortionist with two years in prison.

In sexually uneducated Poland, where some of the world's most conservative clerics are rushing to replace the fallen Communists as the ultimate arbiters of secular morality, abortion is at least as controversial an issue as it is in the United States.

But while U.S. women have access to other forms of contraception, Poles rely almost exclusively on abortion.

Pregnancies in Poland are terminated on demand under a liberally interpreted 1956 law that imposed few restrictions. Hospital statistics list about 130,000 abortions a year. Poland's Family Planning Association, with gynecologists making up 70 percent of its membership, puts the number at 600,000. The church claims there are 1 million.

With a church veto on sex education in schools and with contraceptive devices difficult to obtain, abortion is the major method of birth control in Poland, which has one of the highest rates of population growth in Europe.

Last year conservative Catholics began a campaign to replace the existing legislation with a total ban on the termination of pregnancies, even those resulting from rape.

Two months ago, when the bill came to Parliament, the Solidarity-dominated Senate reduced prison terms for both woman and doctor but still voted to imprison for up to two years doctors who performed abortions.

"In the present stage of development of our society, with the present level of morality, the intervention of the law is essential," said Sen. Walerian Piotrowski.

There was widespread disquiet, especially in medical circles.

"The medical milieu is worried but afraid to protest," said Dr. Zbigniew Lew Starowicz, who runs a family planning clinic in the capital.

"There is no tradition of anti-clericalism in Poland, and anyone who attacks the church is isolated. I know if we get up a petition in the clinic against the proposed law, all the doctors will sign it. But if we insert a clause criticizing the church, they will withdraw."

The church's approval rating, nevertheless, slid in October as opinion polls across the country showed widespread opposition to the bill.

Letters, mostly of protest, poured in to the press, especially to women's magazines.

"The hated Communist regime has turned into a clerical regime, which fast enough will become just as hated," wrote a woman from Gdynia to Kobieta i Zycie.

The bill still has to pass in the Sejm or lower house, where Catholic Solidarity is not as strong as in the Senate and where former Communists and their secular allies hold 65 percent of the seats.

Nevertheless, deputies seem less concerned about their constituencies than about alienating the church or appearing to clash with Pope John Paul II, perhaps the most popular figure in Poland and a strong supporter of the bill.

Last week the Sejm resolved its dilemma by postponing the debate until after presidential elections Nov. 25. That left the presidential candidates on the spot.

Leading presidential contender Lech Walesa, the Solidarity chief, and his primary rival, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, have announced that they are opposed to abortion.

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