Poland Leads the Way

Steven Mosher
written by Katarina Carranco
March 22, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Population Research Institute

Poland is among the most Catholic and pro-life countries in Europe, so much so that even the Polish constitution declares that the state "shall ensure the legal protection of the life of every human being."

Despite this provision of the Polish constitution, Polish law up until recently has allowed abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities, rape, incest, and risk to a mother's life.

In 2019, however, a group of 119 MPs from three different Polish parties decided to challenge these exceptions. They argued that the law permitting abortion in cases of fetal abnormality was incompatible with the above constitutional provision protecting "the life of every human being." They asked the Polish constitutional court, called the Constitutional Tribunal, to overturn the law dating from 1993 that permitted abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities.

The Constitutional Tribunal handed down its ruling in October 2020, finding that abortion-even in the case of a high probability that a baby would be born with severe and irreversible impairments, or an incurable condition that threatens its life-was incompatible with Poland's constitution.

This landmark court ruling on abortion from Poland's highest court cannot be appealed. It will close a loophole used to justify abortions in the country and save countless unborn lives.

Not everyone was happy with this development. A month following this ruling, the European Parliament passed a Resolution lamenting what the EU law-making body referred to as a "de facto ban on the right to abortion in Poland."

Despite this pressure from the European Parliament, and despite several months of protests inside of Poland, the October 2020 ruling became law on the 27th of January 2021, when it was published in the country's Journal of Laws.

The Polish court's decision is not without its defenders, both inside and outside of the country. Catholic bishops from Poland and across Europe have supported Poland's expansion of protections for the unborn.

Perhaps more surprisingly, they have publicly pushed back on the European Parliament's Resolution condemning it.

In a letter addressed to David Maria Sassoli, President of the Parliament, the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) called for the protection and care of all unborn life. They specifically criticized the Resolution, saying that it "will have a very negative impact on the way the Union is perceived by Member States."

Their letter to President Sassoli makes several points. First, it maintains that the right to provide abortion is, from a legal perspective, clearly "left up to the legal systems of the Member States…the rule of law also requires respect for the competences of the Member States and the choices made by them in the exercise of their exclusive competences."

This respect for areas that are the "exclusive competence" of member states may explain COMECE silence on another pro-life issue. In 2018, Irish voters overwhelmingly supported an abortion referendum that enabled the Irish Parliament to successfully appeal for the legalization of abortion on the island nation.

The COMECE letter also criticizes the Resolution for questioning the right to conscientious objection. "This is particularly worrying considering that in the healthcare sector conscientious objectors are in many cases subject to discrimination," the bishops wrote. "In our view, such unjust stigmatization should not be promoted."

The bishops also addressed two additional concerns: the need to respect the different national constitutions and national traditions that underlay national legislation, and the principle of "non-discrimination" between states which, if ignored, could be used to "stretch or blur the limits" of the EU's authority over member states.

They also lamented that in the wake of the Polish protests, there was "no condemnation or solidarity [that] was expressed in the text with regard to the unacceptable attacks on churches and places of worship in the context of protests related to this law in Poland."

The bishops believed the Resolution would have a "very negative impact" on the way the Union is perceived by Member States, adding that "neither European Union legislation nor the European Convention on Human Rights provide for a right to abortion." There are international legal standards that provide a "special safeguard and care for the child, before and after birth" that is even recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Despite every Member State of the Union having the liberty to exercise their exclusive competence, which the bishops advocated for the EU Parliament to respect, in the letter the bishops once again emphasized that "the Catholic Church, which seeks to support women in life situations arising from difficult or unwanted pregnancies, calls for the protection and care of all unborn life."

The Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union is a Brussels-based organization that was founded in 1980 as an instrument of liaison between the Bishops' Conferences and European communities and institutions. COMECE consists of bishops delegated by the bishops' conferences of each of the 27 member states of the European Union. Their role consists of monitoring EU political processes on a variety of issues and encouraging dialogue and communications between the two entities.

In recent years COMECE has focused heavily on issues concerning migration and climate change , both of which are themes heavily emphasized in Pope Francis' encyclicals, Laudato Si (2015) and Fratelli Tutti (2020). More recently, COMECE has primarily set its sights on COVID-19 health crisis relief and and sustainable ecological recovery.

The letter to the European parliament was signed by the members of the Standing Committee of COMECE, which consists of president Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg; Bishop Mariano Crociata of Latina, Italy; Bishop Franz Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany; Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Northern Ireland; and Bishop Jan Vokal of Hradec Králové, Czech Republic.