Despite insistences from officials that it represents no such thing, the Government of Poland is currently facing a tremendous backlash against what critics are calling a “pregnancy register” which requires doctors to record every pregnancy within the country. Doctors must now record information, including past or current illnesses, medical visits, treatments and blood type. For its part, the Polish Government maintains the provision in question followed EU recommendations and allows medical workers to help patients.
While Polish liberals have labelled the provision an infringement on women’s rights, there is an even bigger story here and one which gets to the heart of the ideological schism which now cuts across Europe. Poland’s United Right coalition – dominated by the nationalist Law and Justice Party – has already enacted what many in Europe see as the EU’s most restrictive abortion law. Abortion is allowed only in cases of rape or incest or when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. A ruling in 2020 by the Polish Constitutional Court found that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was in fact unconstitutional.
Poland – which has likely overtaken Italy as the European country with the most practising Catholics – has certainly seen some internal pushback against the abortion law as well as the new provision. However, while data suggests that most Poles support abortion (although just 22 per cent support abortion ‘on demand’ against a majority who favour it only under certain circumstances) – and there were sizeable protests against the abortion law in 2021 – such policies could only be possible in the EU’s re-Christianised east.
The Catholic Church – which wields much more power in Poland than any other EU country and was instrumental in bringing about the end of communism (symbolised by the former Archbishop of Kraków, Pope John Paul II) – not only supports the Government’s stance but continues to play a pivotal role in shaping public policy. For its part, the Constitutional Court justified its ruling on the grounds that “an unborn child is a human being” and deserves protection under the Constitution which ensures the right to life. Meanwhile, last year after a hospital in northeast Poland refused to grant an abortion despite the fact the baby had no chance of survival, doctors referenced the Catholic think tank – Ordo Iuris – which argued that risk to mental health should not be grounds for abortion.
Now, since the fall of the old Iron Curtain it feels as though a new one – this time based on culture – has emerged, cleaving the EU in two, with the power of the Church now far greater in the former communist bloc where it was once suppressed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in a speech after his re-election, recently spoke about “the Christian civilisational foundations of Europe, and in the nation, which Brussels has given up.” His words echo language from leaders in neighbouring states, such as the former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, who last year claimed that imposing “imaginary European values” on central Europe could lead to the EU’s collapse.
Both Hungary and Poland have been pilloried by the EU of late over their stance on reproductive and LGBT rights (Hungary prohibits sharing content on homosexuality or sex reassignment to under-18s, while several local authorities in Poland have declared themselves free of “LGBT ideology”), as well as the rule of law (something Budapest and Warsaw see as a thinly-veiled ideological attack by Brussels) since politicians are seen as having exerted undue influence over the judiciary. However, neither country has given ground. Unlike in western Europe or the United States, countries in central and eastern Europe are not so much trying to reverse trends which have come to fruition as they are prevent such trends from emerging in the first place.
It is in this context of a divide between the progressive and increasingly secular countries of western Europe, and the traditional, re-Christianising and nationalistic states in central and eastern Europe, that Poland’s abortion law ought to be seen. While anger over the abortion law and “pregnancy register” point to internal divisions within Poland (and similar splits within neighbouring countries), the reality is that such policies could simply not be enacted if mainstream opinion was not essentially on board. The division is within Europe itself, between competing visions of the role of faith, and what family and nationhood now mean to people. For the likes of Hungary and Poland, the policies being promoted are not just pushback against their communist past but what is seen as progressive imposition by Brussels.
For central and eastern Europe, the role the Catholic Church (or the various Orthodox Churches) played in dismantling communism largely helps explain why Christianity as a whole has become far more prominent in public life just as it has been side-lined to near irrelevance in much of western European and the Anglosphere. It is this cultural cleavage within the EU, as well as the wider Continent, which increasingly defines relations between its constituent parts. The Polish abortion law, and subsequent ruling on collecting medical data, should be seen as symptoms – not causes – of a growing ideological chasm.
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