In July 2019 British MPs voted to decriminalise abortion in the North of Ireland. It was an action that while ostensibly modern upended everything that science thought it had demonstrated in the field of evolutionary biology.
Despite all scientific claims that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted, the Westminster bill showed that to be an assertion based on very weak founds. From the caves of the Caleb Cult, the giant beasts, bible in hand, poured forth to proclaim in deep sonorous tones that because of their religion, people not of their religion, had to do what their religion commanded.
Abortion, as we in Ireland understand only too well, is a most divisive issue, where emotions run high and often runs reasoned discussion out of the room. Over decades of discussion I have found myself willing to listen to every argument against abortion other than a religious one. What someone feels their magic man in the sky thinks of abortion simply does not interest me. So, having discussed it with people of widely differing perspectives, I have concluded that I am no abortion enthusiast. But then I don't imagine that all those women faced with the situation are enthusiasts either. They feel compelled to make difficult decisions which cannot be dismissed as selfish or merit the thrusting of rosary beads in their faces by clerical crackpots. My position on the matter is straightforward: women should be free to make the choice rather than the state making the choice by denying women the choice. There is always the question of choice and who has the power to make that choice and deny another the ability to do so.
Currently watching a Danish crime thriller DNA, which sees the plot move between Denmark and Poland, the circumstance of a pregnant Polish teenager caused me to focus. The teen has the grave misfortune to fall into the hands of nuns. Our own country's experience of the dicky dodgers should serve as a salutary warning to allow neither woman nor child to be swooped on by such fiendish clutches. The question of choice weaves its way through the narrative of the drama. It was coincidental that I found myself viewing it in a week where on the October 22nd the Polish Constitutional Tribunal - the country's highest court - ruled that abortion in all circumstances other than rape/incest or a threat to the mother’s life was illegal. Prior to the Tribunal's ruling, Poland already had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
To get some sense of perspective, abortions due to fetal defects accounted for 98% of all legal abortions carried out in the country last year, which amounted to just over 1,000 legal terminations. “Compare that with this statistic: women's rights groups estimate between 80,000 and 120,000 Polish women a year seek an abortion abroad.” There is clearly a strong need for women to avail of termination facilities. The Tribunal's ruling will amount to an almost total ban on abortion, something more in line with a theocracy than a democracy. Hence, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic described the ruling as a "a sad day for #WomensRights", and a lawyer for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, asserting that "this is a totally unjustified decision that will lead to inhuman treatment of women."
Such was the public anger that people took to the streets in opposition to the move in numbers so huge, that it was reported by analysts that "demonstrations of this scale were last seen in the Solidarity movement of the 1980s in Poland which led to the collapse of the government.” That might augur well. Despite a government ban on gatherings of over five people in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19, almost half a million took to the streets across a range of cities. Today saw protestors assemble for the 11th consecutive day.
Poland, although a country with a very strong strain of Catholicism running through it, had previously showed “no public clamour” for more restrictive measures around the procurement of abortion. How therefore has the law come to pass?
The pressure to curb access to abortion has come primarily from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party supported by the country’s bishops. Attempts to to push through similar restrictions in 2016 met with such opposition that the plan was shelved. What appears to have changed is that the politicians passed the power to decide on the matter to the Tribunal, a body described by former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as a pseudo court. Something similar has taken place in the US where Trump in a bid to curry the favour of the religious right appointed a member of a right wing religious cult to the Supreme Court in a bid to increase its conservative majority.
The decision has produced an unprecedented backlash against the Church. Some protestors disrupted masses in a clear protest against the role of the bishops. Jaroslaw Kaczyński, leader of the Law And Justice party, accused the protestors of being criminals. In a further attempt to discredit the protesters, a state-TV headline on Tuesday read: “Left-wing fascism is destroying Poland."
It will hardly shock many to find the bishops, not one of whom will ever get pregnant, leading the charge against women’s rights or to find that Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, the head of the Polish Episcopal Conference, said he very much welcomes the ruling. The late French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would sometimes muse on the need to live an authentic life. How he measured authenticity, I am not quite sure, but what is certain is that the first step in leading what might be called an authentic ethical life, is to completely ignore anything the bishops might say. Bricklayers and binmen are people I would listen to on matters of morality before I would ever entertain the thoughts of a bishop.
Today, in Drogheda and elsewhere in Ireland Polish citizens turned out to protest the draconian measure back home.
Hopefully, our own country will not leave them to stand alone; that we will assist those Polish women who face the risk of serious injury and death from back street abortions; that we will take them in and give them the service they need and by doing so enable them to do what we have done: tell the bishops to fuck off.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.