Poles apart: Church vs choice

The whole of Poland, it seems, is holding its breath over the outcome of an abortion trial that could shape the moral climate of this post-Communist state. Adrian Bridge reports
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Early last week a piece of legal history was made in the grimy mining town of Chorzow in southern Poland.

Three people went on trial: Wincenty Kroemeke, a respected doctor nearing retirement, Danuta Kroemeke, his wife and receptionist, and Leonard Tomaszewski, a furnace-stoker from the nearby town of Kedzierzyn-Kozle. They face charges under the most controversial piece of legislation to have been passed in Poland since the end of Communist rule: the anti-abortion law of 1993.

Dr Kroemeke is accused of performing an illegal abortion on a 37-year- old woman in March of last year; his wife allegedly assisted him. Mr Tomaszewski is charged with having contributed 200 zlotys (pounds 55) towards the cost of the operation.

They are the first people to stand trial in connection with the law. If convicted, each faces a two-year jail term. Dr Kroemeke, moreover, could be struck off the medical list for a decade.

The fate of the Chorzow three has fascinated Poland. It is a focus for the forces fighting over the moral shape of post-Communist Poland. For the country's powerful Roman Catholic Church, which lobbied vigorously for the 1993 law, a guilty verdict would signify another victory against abortion. It would mark a further tightening of its grip on the country's mores.

For the country's mushrooming women's groups and pro-choice campaigners, such an outcome would be a bitter setback: further confirmation of what they see as the country's retreat into medieval clericalism. Life under Communism may have been tough but, at the very least, Poland had liberal abortion laws. Now those rights are being rolled back, with the Church's moral crusade being tacitly sanctioned by the political leadership of President Lech Walesa.

For many women, Poland's liberation from Communism has a bitter twist. Polish women who unintentionally get pregnant face harsh consequences. Illegal abortions are almost certain to become more costly, more difficult to obtain and more unsafe. "Abortion tours" to neighbouring states such as Belarus and the Ukraine where no questions are asked are booming.

"If a doctor is jailed for carrying out an abortion, it will force the issue further underground," says Jolanta Plakwicz, a leading figure in the Polish Feminist Association. "Qualified doctors will no longer take the risk. The market will be wide open for the backstreet operators."

Barbara Pawliczak has already been caught in the trap set by the stricter laws. When she discovered she was pregnant 15 months ago, she was in no doubt as to what she wanted. Then 36, she had been divorced for eight years and left to bring up a daughter on her own. As a clerk in a gasworks earning a meagre 240 zlotys a month, she had always struggled to make ends meet: the last thing she needed was another mouth to feed.

Then there was the problem of her partner. For almost a year she had been seeing Leonard Tomaszewski, the furnace-stoker from Kedzierzyn-Kozle, who had responded to an advertisement she placed in the lonely hearts magazine Everything about Love.

Mr Tomaszewski was keen to put the relationship on a long-term footing. But by the time she was pregnant, Ms Pawliczak had decided that he was not the man of her dreams. Far from wanting his child, she wanted out.

Finding someone prepared to terminate the pregnancy proved difficult. Under the terms of the 1993 law, abortions in Poland are only permitted if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, if the life or health of the mother is judged to be at risk, or if the foetus is seriously malformed.

Although it was widely known that some doctors - for a fee - were prepared to overlook the letter of the law, Ms Pawliczak's gynaecologist in her home town of Swietochlowice refused point blank to perform the operation.

In her desperation, Ms Pawliczak thought about taking up one of the widely advertised "abortion tours" to the nearby Czech Republic where the matter could be settled within hours for a "standard" price of 850 zlotys (including travel) or "de luxe" deal at 950 zlotys (American drugs and doctor with 25 years' experience thrown in).

In the end, though, she opted for something closer to home, chancing her luck in the nearby town of Chorzow, where she had spotted the nameplate of one Dr Wincenty Kroemeke.

According to the written testimony Ms Pawliczak has already presented to the court, Dr Kroemeke, 59, was very apprehensive. "Initially, he did not want to agree," she said. "But I insisted. I was begging and crying for half an hour. Finally, he relented and told me to come back by myself, and never to tell anyone about the operation."

Ms Pawliczak maintains that Dr Kroemeke was assisted in the operation by his wife and that the couple charged 450 zlotys for their services. The Kroemekes, who were identified by Ms Pawliczak in two police line- ups, deny ever having seen her.

In the normal run of things in Poland, it is extremely unlikely that any of this would have come to light. Despite the 1993 law, abortions have carried on being performed in one way or another, and until last week nobody had been prosecuted for it.

It was the wrath of the jilted lover that brought this case to light. Shortly after having the abortion - which, Ms Pawliczak claims, was partially paid for by Mr Tomaszewski and agreed between them - Ms Pawliczak decided to end the relationship.

In retaliation, the furnace-stoker decided to report the matter to the authorities, alleging that he had never wanted the abortion and that the 200 zlotys he had given his ex-girlfriend had been intended for baby clothes.

"I wanted to teach her a lesson," Mr Tomaszewski confessed in his pre- trial testimony. Ironically, rather than Ms Pawliczak, it is he who has ended up in the dock. Under the terms of the 1993 law, women who have abortions do not face prosecution: that is reserved for those who perform them or who are in some way accomplices to them.

This everyday story of sex and jealousy has become the arena for a fierce political battle over women's rights and the power of the Catholic Church. For the Church, and many women, the case could determine the moral climate for years to come.

For the Church, the trial is the culmination of the long campaign that led to the passage of the restrictive 1993 law - which replaced the Communist era legislation under which abortion was available on demand. Under the old law, there were almost 600,000 abortions a year. Under the new law, there were 786 official abortions last year.

Church leaders are wary of talking about the specifics of the Chorzow case. As Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, Secretary to the Polish Episcopate, says: "The courts deal with infringements against the penal code: we deal with infringements against the moral code. Those involved will only be judged by us when they come to confession."

But the Church has never made any secret of the fact that it would like to see the passage of an even more restrictive law under which all abortions would be judged illegal.

The Church has not been alone. In the great battles over the 1993 law, it received most of its political support from the cluster of right-wing parties that made Christian and "family" values the main plank of their platforms. At that time, the right was far stronger politically than it is now. But even with the waning of the right's popularity, the restrictive abortion law still enjoys the support of President Lech Walesa, a staunch Catholic and himself the father of eight.

In addition to engineering the passage of the second most restrictive anti-abortion law in Europe (after that of Ireland), the Church was also accused of exercising undue influence over the re-introduction of religious teaching in schools, religious ceremonies in the army and the passage of a media bill in which the upholding of "Christian values" was made obligatory.

Ranged against the Catholic right are women MPs and women's pressure groups that argued the law was a step back into the Middle Ages. It was also opposed by members of the former Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), who were alarmed at what they felt was the Church's increasingly intrusive role in society.

When the essentially anti-clerical SLD romped to victory in Poland's 1993 elections, many thought the tide would turn. Indeed, a far more liberal version of the abortion law was passed by Parliament last year - only to be vetoed by President Walesa.

Since then, however, the issue has not been raised again. Even fairly hardened former Communists tread cautiously into the debate anxious not to alienate a vast pool of God-fearing voters.

During the Communist era it was relatively simple. With atheism as the official creed, the Church was the one institution around which all Poles could rally. It gave a sense of common identity rooted in the past. It also offered a forum for opposition and hope for the future. When the future arrived in 1989, the Church found itself seeking a new role. With the oppressors gone, it had to face up to the fact that it could be criticised.

All the conflicts involving the Church over the past five years boil down to one question. What sort of state will post-Communist Poland become: secular and modern or quasi-fundamentalist and Catholic? On the basis of current trends, most Poles have not yet made up their minds. According to opinion polls, more than 95 per cent of the population consider themselves Roman Catholic and more than 60 per cent are regular church-goers. Few would dream of skipping mass, or openly criticising the Pope - a Pole himself after all.

At the same time, increasing numbers feel the Church should steer clear of these matters. They may be taking their places in the pews, but many have stopped listening to what they are being told from the pulpits.

There has never been a majority in favour of the 1993 law - which its backers never dared submit to a referendum. When asked in opinion polls, most Poles say they would prefer a return to abortion on demand.Ms Plakwicz says the trial may have a silver lining. "This has shown what a hypocritical country Poland is. People pretend it is a very moral state and the law reflects this. But this case underlines the fact that illegal abortions are happening and that there is a huge discrepancy between the law and what happens in life. If nothing else, it has exposed this contradiction."

THE OLD LAW Date passed: 1956

Provisions: virtually guaranteed abortion on demand to all women over the age of 18 in state-run clinics.

Rationale: in common with other East European states the point of the 1956 law was only in part to provide women with greater freedom to choose when to have children. It was also designed as a form of birth control.

Effects: by the time the law was repealed, there were 600,000 legal abortions a year.

THE NEW LAW

Date passed: 1993

Provisions: abortions are only permitted if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, if the life or health of the mother is judged to be at risk, or if the foetus is seriously malformed. Women who have abortions do not face prosecution but those that perform them, or who are accomplices to them, do.

Rationale: to embed Catholic morals into Polish family life.

Effects: number of legal abortions fell to 786 last year. Backstreet abortions rising and "abortion tours" to nearby states are becoming increasingly popular.

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