EU bishops back Polish abortion ban

The Brussels-based commission representing the European Union’s Catholic bishops, Comece, has defended a ban on abortions in Poland, citing human rights principles, and rejected a resolution condemning the move from the European Parliament.

“Neither EU legislation nor the European Convention on Human Rights provides for a right to abortion – this matter is left up to the legal systems of member-states”, Comece said in a letter to David Maria Sassoli, Italian president of the Parliament since July 2019.

“Respect for the rule of law is essential for the functioning of the Union. It also requires respect for the competences of member-states and the choices made by them in exercising their exclusive competences.”

The letter was published amid continuing protests against the ban on “eugenic abortions” by Poland’s Constitutional Court, which came into force at the end of January.

It said the Catholic Church called for care and protection of unborn life and pregnant women, adding that special safeguards for children before and after birth were set out the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and other documents of international law.

“All necessary support must be provided to women in difficult life situations of unwanted or difficult pregnancies”, said the letter, signed by Comece’s president, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and the commission’s vice-presidents from Italy, Germany, Ireland and the Czech Republic.

“A fundamental principle of the EU is that of conferral, under which the Union shall act only within the limits of competences conferred upon it by member-states… Strict observance of this principle is, in turn, a requirement of the rule of law, one of the fundamental values of the Union, enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union.”

Polish feminist and pro-choice campaigners staged anti-government and anti-Church demonstrations after last October’s Constitutional Court judgment, which ruled unconstitutional a clause in Poland’s 1993 abortion law, allowing terminations in cases of “severe and irreparable foetal damage”. Protests resumed when the ruling came into force on 27 January, allowing abortions only in rare cases of rape, incest and threats to a mother’s life.

In a November resolution, the European Parliament also condemned the court judgment as “a new attack on the rule of law and fundamental rights”, and threatened Poland with sanctions, warning the new restrictions would “lead to the expansion of clandestine, unsafe abortion and abortion tourism”.

However, EU intervention was rejected by the Polish Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who said the EU’s 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrined the right to life and barred “eugenic practices”, adding that the “fundamental human right” to life should always “take precedence over the right to choose”.

In its letter, Comece said it was alarmed the European Parliament resolution appeared to question the right to conscientious objection, also enshrined in the EU Charter, at a time when many healthcare professionals already faced discrimination and “unjust stigmatisation” for their personal convictions. It added that the resolution had failed to condemn attacks on places of worship by Polish protesters, many of whom accused the Catholic Church of inspiring the abortion ban.

“It is necessary to consider fundamental rights such as freedom of thought, conscience and religion in light of their universality, inviolability, inalienability, indivisibility and interdependence”, Comece said. “In regard to the right to conscientious objection, the EU Charter entails the need to respect national constitutional traditions and the development of national legislation on the issue.”

Poland’s Catholic Information Agency said foetal handicap had accounted for 1074 or the 1116 legal abortions in Poland in 2019, according to Health Minstry data, a quarter involving Down’s Syndrome, adding that the Polish Church ran 146 homes and residence facilities, and over 1200 help centres and other projects, for children and single mothers.

Europe’s Brussels-based Federation of Catholic Family Associations backed the Polish court ruling in an appeal with over a hundred other pro-life organisations from Europe, North America and Latin America, noting that the UN’s disability committee had confirmed in 2017 that handicap abortions violated a 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by the EU in 2010.

In an accompanying statement, Comece said the Polish Constitutional Court had been asked to rule on “eugenic abortions” by Polish MPs in 2019, backed by a mass petition, and had confirmed that any “limitation on the legal protection of human life” must be “an absolute last resort”. It added that MEPs had adopted their resolution before the Polish Court’s 154-page ruling was published “without therefore having real knowledge of the topic”.