Abortion becomes test of power for Walesa

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IN THE five years since Poland jettisoned communism, few issues have divided the nation more sharply than abortion. Last week the argument flared up again, pitting President Lech Walesa and the powerful Polish Catholic Church against women's groups and the secular, leftist majority in parliament.

A law was passed last year limiting abortion to cases in which the woman's life is in danger, pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest, or the foetus is irreparably damaged. This is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and pro-abortion campaigners want it amended so that women in bad health or difficult social circumstances can choose to terminate their pregnancies.

'The present law is unjust, encourages crime and is demoralising,' said Barbara Labuda, a leader of the pro-abortion lobby. She argued that it had forced Polish women to seek abortions abroad or to undergo clandestine operations at home.

Mr Walesa, a devout Catholic and father of eight children, has threatened to use his presidential veto to block any attempt by the parliament to adopt the proposed amendment. With a two-thirds majority, the parliament could overturn his veto. But while the legislature probably contains a majority in favour of some relaxation of the existing law, it is far from clear that the pro-abortion camp has sufficient support to override a Walesa veto.

As a result, some politicians and activists in the pro-abortion movement are suggesting that this most sensitive of issues should be decided in a national referendum. Those in favour of this step include Zbigniew Bujak, once a hero of the underground Solidarity resistance under communism, and now a leader of a left-wing party, the Labour Union.

A referendum might be more closely fought than supporters of abortion imagine. More than 90 per cent of Poles identify themselves as Catholic believers, and anti-abortionists showed their power when they forced the present law through parliament. But modern Poland is a more secular society than the church might like to admit, and even among the Catholic faithful there are many Poles who do not endorse their priests' views on matters such as abortion and contraception.

Such a referendum would be virtually certain to inflame passions and widen Poland's divisions on the issue. The Polish Church, drawing on the full support of Pope John Paul, a former Archbishop of Krakow, could never reconcile itself to a liberal law on abortion.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, Primate of the Polish Church, opposes a referendum. He contends that abortion is a fundamental moral issue of life and death, not just a matter of opinion or preference. Like other church leaders, he was critical of communist rule in Poland, not least because the Communist Party passed a law in 1956 that offered abortion on demand.

However, the abortion debate is more than just a contest between the church and its critics. It also sets Poland's left-wing coalition government, made up largely of ex-communists who won elections last September, against the centre-right opposition, made up largely of ex-Solidarity politicians who toppled communism in 1989.

The Democratic Left Alliance, the largest government party, supports a more liberal abortion law, and has arranged for the parliament to debate the proposed amendment later this month. The opposition has denounced this as a cynical effort to court public popularity ahead of local government elections set for 19 June.

'We believe that abortion should be treated seriously, and cannot be a subject of manipulation before the local government elections,' said Bronislaw Geremek, a leader of the opposition Freedom Union.

With Mr Walesa opposed to the amendment, the abortion debate is turning into a test of who exercises most power in Poland: the president, the government or the parliament. Suspicion and animosity bedevil relations between Mr Walesa and the left-wing government, and each is out to get the upper hand. If Mr Walesa is defeated on the abortion amendment, it will be a sign that his authority is waning.