WARSAW, Poland -- A parliamentary commission set the stage this week for a bitter battle over abortion in this majority-Catholic country.
By a narrow margin of 19-17, with one abstention, a parliamentary commission voted Wednesday to present in the Sejm, or lower house of Parliament, a highly restrictive bill prepared by the Catholic-dominated Senate, or upper house.
The bill would nullify Poland's relatively liberal, Communist-era abortion law, which, combined with a lack of both sexual education and contraceptives, had given Poland up to 1.5 million abortions a year, one of the highest rates in Europe.
Instead, it would almost entirely outlaw the termination of pregnancies, including those that resulted from incest or rape, and would provide for penalties of up to two years in prison for anyone who had or who performed abortions.
Under the terms of the proposed law, abortion would be justified only to save the life of the mother, and not even a severely or irremediably damaged fetus would justify intervention.
The Sejm is to decide on the bill next month.
Poland, a country that is both overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and, in the absence of other birth control, strongly abortion-oriented, is deeply riven over the issue.
"Social consultations" carried out at the Sejm's request over the last few months by the Extraordinary Parliamentary Commission showed overwhelming support for an abortion ban. Public opinion polls, however, show that a majority of Poles oppose a ban.
Last month the Sejm announced it had received 1.7 million letters and opinions, of which nearly 90 percent, mostly from the countryside and small towns, favored an abortion ban. Those against came predominantly from big cities and from circles directly concerned with child welfare.
More than 1.4 million of the letters, it was announced, originated in parishes and other organizations of the Roman Catholic Church, which has mounted a massive campaign to push the law through.
"This is no way to hold consultations, with an organized response," said Elzbieta Dehner-Luszczynska, secretary of the League of Women, a moderate feminist group active in the Communist era. She said that children attending Lenten meditations in the northern city of Bialystok had been asked to sign anti-abortion petitions before they were allowed out of the classroom.
"The matter should be the subject of a popular referendum, but they are afraid of the result," she said.
Indeed, popular opinion polls do not reflect the views that emerged from the "social consultations." In recent polling, nearly 60 percent of Poles said they supported the abortion law as it now stands.