Szczecin, Poland — The Polish state has banned abortion for 29 years, but it has done little to stop women from accessing the procedure, leaving Rev. Tomasz Kancelarczyk is a busy man.
A Roman Catholic priest plays an ultrasound recording of what he describes as a fetal heartbeat in his sermons to dissuade women considering abortion. He threatened teenage girls to tell their parents if they had an abortion. He molested couples waiting in the hospital for abortions due to fetal abnormalities, which were allowed until the law was tightened last year.
But Clerk’s father’s most effective tool, he admits, may actually be what the state has largely neglected: helping single mothers by providing them with shelter, supermarket vouchers, children’s clothing, and, if necessary, lawyers to prosecute violent partners.
“Sometimes I am amazed at the number of such cases,” Father Kancelarchik, 54, said during a recent visit to his “Little Foot House,” a shelter he runs in a nearby village for single women, pregnant women, women with children, everyone with difficulty. . “There should be 200 or 300 such houses in Poland. There is a vacuum there.”
If strictly Abortion bans extend in some US statesPoland offers a kind of laboratory for how such bans affect society. And one thing is clear in Poland: the state, if it is determined to stop abortion, is less focused on what comes next – on the child who needs help and support.
The Polish government has some of the most generous social benefits in the region, but still offers only minimal support to single mothers and parents of children with disabilities. almost the same as in some parts of the United States where abortion is banned.
“They call themselves life proponents, but they are only interested in women until they give birth,” said Krystyna Kachpura, president of the Women and Planned Parenthood Federation, a Warsaw-based human rights group opposed to the government ban. “There is no systemic support for mothers in Poland, especially mothers of disabled children.”
This is one of the reasons why the number of abortions has not really decreased – abortions have simply gone underground or abroad. While the number of legal abortions has fallen to around 1,000 a year, abortion rights activists estimate that 150,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies every year despite the ban, either by using abortion pills or by traveling abroad.
Poland’s fertility rate, which currently stands at 1.3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in Europe – half of what it was during communist times, when the country had one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world.
The legal ban, as even staunch opponents of abortion like Father Kanselarchik admit, “didn’t have a noticeable impact” on the numbers.
On the other hand, the offer of food, housing, or childcare can sometimes make a difference, and Father Kanzelarchik, who raises money through donations, proudly says that such help helps him “save” 40 pregnancies a year.
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One of them was Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who did not want to reveal her full name for fear of stigma in her deeply Catholic community.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she said that the child’s father and her family shunned her. No bank lent her money because she didn’t have a job. Nobody wanted to hire her because she was pregnant. And she was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that she was “incapacitated.”
“The state is completely phasing out single mothers,” she said.
And then one day, when she was sitting on the floor in her tiny unfurnished apartment, Father Kancelarchik, who was warned by a friend, called, urged her to leave the child and offered to help.
“I had nothing once,” Beate said. “The next day he shows up with all these things: furniture, clothes, diapers. I could even choose the color of my stroller.”
Nine years later, Beata works as an accountant and the son she chose, Michal, is doing well in school.
For many women, Father Kanzelarchik has proved to be the only insurance, although his charity is imbued with a Christian zeal that polarizes, the division that is pronounced in Szczecin.
The red-brick, gothic church of Father Chancellor sits directly opposite the center for the humanities, whose windows are adorned with a row of black lightning bolts – the symbol of the Polish abortion rights movement – and a poster that reads “My Body, My Choice.”
Every year, Father Kancelarczyk organizes the largest anti-abortion march in Poland, when thousands of people leave his church and face counter-protesters on the other side of the street. Before a local gay parade, he once urged his parishioners to “sanitize the streets.”
He says he receives hate mail almost every day, calling it “Satan’s work.”
Mrs. Kachpura, a lawyer opposed to the government ban, says the lack of government support, especially for single mothers, has opened up space for people like Father Kanzelarchik to “suggest” women who find themselves in financial and emotional distress.
Under communism, childcare was free and most Polish workplaces had facilities to encourage mothers to join the workforce. But that system collapsed after 1989, when the emboldened Roman Catholic Church supported the 1993 abortion ban because it also revived the idea of women as mothers and guardians of the home.
The nationalist and conservative Law and Justice Party, which was elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw the opportunity and adopted one of the most generous child benefit programs in Europe. It was a revolution in family policy in Poland.
But there is still a lack of child care, a mandatory condition for mothers to go to work, and special support for parents of children with disabilities. Over the past decade, groups of parents of children with disabilities have twice occupied the Polish parliament to protest the lack of state support, in 2014 and 2018.
When someone contacts Father Stationer about a woman contemplating an abortion—”usually a girl”—sometimes he calls the pregnant woman. When she doesn’t want to talk, he says he’ll run into her and force the conversation.
He also admonishes fathers by waving ultrasound images in front of men who want to abandon their pregnant girlfriends. “If men behaved decently, women would not have abortions,” he said.
Although he is hated by many, he is admired by the religious communities where he preaches.
Monika Niklas, a 42-year-old mother of two from Szczecin, attended Mass for the first time with Father Kancelarczyk shortly after learning her unborn child had Down syndrome. It was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal anomalies, and she was considering an abortion. “I thought my world was collapsing,” she said.
During the service, Father Kancelarchik played a video from his phone with a sound that he called the fetal heartbeat.
“It was so touching,” said Miss. Niklas recalled. “After Mass we went to talk to him and told him about our situation.” He was one of the first to tell her and her husband that they would be fine and offered support.
After the birth of his son Krzys M. Niklas gave up his career as an architect to take full care of him. Krzys, now 9, only got a place at the school this fall, one example of how government support is not meeting their needs.
Now she counsels future parents of disabled children, trying to advise them to leave their children, but without embellishment.
“I never tell them, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ because it’s going to be hard,” she said. “But if you accept that your life will be different from what you imagined, you can be very happy.”
“We have ideas about who our children will be – a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut,” she added. “Kshis taught me about love.”
But in all her advice, she says, one thing is barely mentioned: a ban on abortion.
“It didn’t affect how people make decisions,” she said. “Those who want to have an abortion do it anyway, only abroad.”
Many women here agreed.
Kasia, who also didn’t want her full name to be revealed due to the stigma associated with the issue, is one of nine women currently living in Father Kancelarchik’s orphanage. She was 23 years old when she became pregnant. She said her boyfriend abused her – the police refused to intervene – and then left her. Her mother kicked her out of the house. A friend contacted an abortion clinic abroad in Germany.
“It’s not hard,” she said of the wrongful termination. “It’s a matter of getting a phone number.”
In the end, it was the miscarriage at eight weeks pregnant that changed Casi’s mind and convinced her to endure the pregnancy.
Father Kantselyarchik offered her not only free accommodation and food in his shelter, but also a lawyer who sued her ex-boyfriend. Now he is serving a 10-month sentence and may lose custody.
“Now I feel safe,” Kasia said.
Father Kancelarczyk says the number of women who came to him because they were considering an abortion did not increase when the ban on fetal abnormalities was tightened in Poland. But he still supports the ban.
“Law always has a normative effect,” he said. “What is allowed is perceived as good, and what is forbidden as evil.”