WARSAW — Polish politicians usually know to give reproductive issues a wide berth. Recently, the ruling Civic Platform party took the opposite route.
The pro-business party had shied away from abortion and euthanasia because its electorate ranges from rural conservatives who hew to the Catholic Church’s line to big-city liberals more in tune with western Europe.
But Civic Platform took up the issue of in vitro fertilization — and now it’s blowing up in Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s face.
The prime minister, who is something of a religious rebel and had a church wedding only after his political career began to take off, wanted to get Poland’s in vitro law — or, rather, the lack thereof — in line with European Union directives on the issue.
But one of his leading lieutenants — Jaroslaw Gowin, an ascetic academic from the traditionalist bastion of Krakow — decided to push a version of the bill that would only allow in vitro fertilization for married couples, and would preclude the freezing of unused embryos.
In contrast, the leader of a parliamentary bioethics commission proposed a bill that would expand the right to include unmarried couples and would allow the freezing of embryos.
“We don’t think that only married couples should be able to use this method,” said Zbigniew Chlebowski, Civic Platform’s parliamentary leader.
That approach was favored by the smaller, left-wing parties in parliament, leaving Gowin exposed and embittered.
“There is no room for compromise. I will never accept the freezing of human beings. From my point of view embryos are humans,” Gowin said in a recent radio interview.
The Church quickly seized on the issue and reiterated the Vatican’s steadfast opposition to artificial conception. In a pastoral letter sent out to all of Warsaw’s churches this Lent, Archbishop Jozef Nycz called the procedure “disturbing and painful.”
Although he only represents a minority within the party, fears started to grow that Gowin could storm out of Civic Platform, which would be the kind of defection that brought down the previous government of the right-wing Law and Justice party. Martin Jurek abandoned Law and Justice over what he felt was a lack of support for a more restrictive law on abortion. His departure was one trigger for Law and Justice’s eventual collapse and loss of power.
On the other side of the debate, Janusz Palikot, a flamboyant Civic Platform member of parliament who delights in skewering figures of authority, decided that it was time to turn up the heat by introducing a bill that would allow for assisted suicide — something that would be enormously controversial in Poland.
In Poland, such controversial questions rarely rise to the level of public political debate. One example is the abortion law: It is one of the most restrictive in Europe, and the rate of official abortions is tiny. However, the true rate must be fairly high because Poland has a declining population, with only 1.28 births per woman — one of the lowest rates in Europe. All attempts to shift the status quo on abortion have been unsuccessful.
The prospect of entering into a damaging ideological battle over in vitro fertilization at a time when he is trying to deal with an economic crisis prompted Tusk last week to back away from introducing any legislation until possibly this fall.
But now that it has caught the scent of an issue that could shake the government’s popularity, the opposition is preparing to strike.
The ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance is still keen to pass liberal legislation, while Law and Justice is speeding up work on its own legislation that would ban all in vitro treatments, only allowing for the use of embryos that have already been frozen in past procedures.
“Because [Civic] Platform has been playing around with this project for a long time, we have to propose our own legislative solution,” said Boleslaw Piecha, the Law and Justice parliamentarian pushing the issue.
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