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Abortion Bill A Lightning Rod For Poland Sparks Debate On Influence Of Catholic Church In Politics

Thu., Oct. 24, 1996

Maria Wilk has lived through turbulent times in Poland over the past two decades, but the demonstration outside All Saints Roman Catholic Church here Wednesday was the first to draw her into the streets.

“I had to come for my own conscience, and I had to come for the sake of my children,” said the mother of four, kneeling on the cold pavement in prayer. “I’ve always considered the commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ something that cannot be interpreted in any other way.”

Wilk was among the tens of thousands of Poles who came to the capital Wednesday to protest parliamentary plans to liberalize the country’s 3-year-old abortion law, the most restrictive among former East Bloc countries and second in all of Europe in its stringency only to Ireland.

The Polish Parliament is expected to vote on the proposed amendments today, and Wednesday’s demonstration was the latest in a series of highly charged protests that have attracted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles during the past two months.

The crux of the abortion dispute is about competing claims of a woman’s right to choose and society’s right to protect its unborn. In Poland, the debate also has become a lightning rod for one of the country’s major unresolved issues since the end of communism: How Catholic do Poles want their new country to be?

Since the fall of communism seven years ago, abortion has been among the hottest, most divisive issues in Poland, where more than 90 percent of the people are nominally Catholic. Passage of the present law - which permits abortions only in rare cases such as rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother - was a key achievement of the Solidarity governments that ruled until 1993, reversing a Communist-era law that made abortions freely available.

But the debate has taken on unprecedented virulence and urgency since the election last year of President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist who has had a rocky relationship with church officials. Unlike Lech Walesa, his devout Catholic predecessor, Kwasniewski has made it clear he will not veto abortion-rights legislation or oppose secularization of Polish laws, including a new constitution that some want to be free of any reference to a supreme being.

The bill would allow pregnancies to be terminated by women “who find themselves in difficult living conditions or where they have other important personal reasons,” but only after undergoing counseling and waiting three days to reconsider. It would also step up sex education in schools and lower the price of contraceptives.

As a testament to the groundswell of anti-abortion opposition, a vote that ago was seen as a sure win is now considered a close call.

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