WARSAW, Poland -- The Polish parliament voted yesterday to shelve discussion of both a proposed abortion ban and calls for an abortion referendum.
But the vote was more an evasive tactic than a solution, and the tension surrounding the controversial issue of abortion, the major form of birth control in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, was by no means entirely defused.
After a marathon discussion, deputies in the Sejm, or lower house of parliament, voted 208-145 to delay consideration of a harshly restrictive abortion bill pending a government report on innovations in family care and sex education.
The resolution, a last-ditch effort to avoid passage of a Catholic Church-sponsored ban on abortion, was offered by liberal Solidarity members and supported by former Communists and their allies.
If the church-sponsored abortion ban had become law, Poland would have had, with Ireland, Europe's harshest legislation, meting out two-year jail terms both to doctors performing abortions and women undergoing them. The outlawing of the termination of all pregnancies, even those resulting from rape or incest or involving a severely deformed fetus, would have replaced a liberal 1956 law permitting abortion almost on demand.
Between 600,000 and 1.5 million abortions are performed annually in Poland, according to estimates.
Many advocates of the proposed harsher legislation considered it a "present" to Pope John Paul II, an adamant abortion foe who visits his homeland next month.
Liberals and women's groups had called for a popular referendum, strongly opposed by the Catholic bishops. The Sejm also deferred that debate.
"If the resolution had not been approved there was a great probability of the abortion ban going through," said Elzbieta Dehner-Luszczynska, secretary of the largest women's group, the League of Women. "It was a political compromise, but it bought time."
It also rescued parliamentary deputies from a dilemma in which they were damned whichever way they voted. With general elections scheduled for the autumn, they could not afford to oppose their constituents, who according to opinion polls support abortion.
At the same time no Polish politician running for re-election wants to antagonize the church, which can mount a highly effective political campaign from the pulpit.