Poles excel at finding divisive issues to argue about. Was imposition of martial law legitimate? Was the Smolensk crash an assassination or a tragic accident? Was colonel Kuklinski a hero or a traitor? What does the rainbow on Plac Zbawiciela symbolise and should it stay there?
The most recent area of disputes among public figures and ordinary people is the controversial decision of head of one of Warsaw’s hospitals who declined to perform an abortion to a woman whose child was bound to be born grossly disfigured and die soon after birth from severe deformations (it happened last Wednesday) and who did not refer her to another doctor who would terminate the pregnancy (as set forth in the doctor profession law). The story has been succinctly recapped by BBC, yet the short write-up focuses only on facts and does not broach a wide spectrum of dilemmas involved.
Clearly, there is a conflict between Catholic Church teachings and official legislation. For Catholics, life is indefeasible since the moment of conception until natural death and this precept cannot be compromised in any situation. The Polish law, passed in 1990s and until recently serving as example of give-and-take in lawmaking, allows for abortion in clearly specified situations, when pregnancy is the aftermath or rape, incest, life of mother is at serious risk or when child’s defects are abject and incurable. Actually the short list of exceptions to general prohibition of pregnancy termination covers situations when lesser of two evils has to be chosen. The law also states a doctor whose beliefs do not permit them to get involved in some forms of treatment (e.g. performing an abortion), is allowed to refuse to grant a patient’s request, but is obliged to refer the patient to another doctor. This provision also clashes with the Church teachings, according to which a doctor who abides by the law becomes an accomplice. No wonder strong is the line of defence of the professor who draws a comparison to a pharmacy assistant who refuses to sell a poison to a would-be suicider, but refers him to another pharmacy round the corner. On the other hand, the pregnant woman was bestowed a free will and the doctor’s role could have been to persuade her not to have an abortion, but he should have been confined to a firm refusal.
The ever-lasting problem with assessment of abortion, in-vitro and other similar issues is whether an embryo is a child or not. Once you take a stand on this issue, your perception of the problem is easily (not an apposite word) tackled. If you think an embryo is already a human being, an abortion will be a murder. If you see an embryo as a bunch of cells unable to function on its own that can develop into a human being inside a woman’s body, your approach will be more liberal…
The provision under which doctors can decline to engage in some forms of treatment is called ‘the conscience clause’. Oddly enough, professor Chazan is most often accused of lack of conscience in his demeanour. He does not deny his aspiration was not to commit a sin and to prevent a woman (whose beliefs could have been different from his and who was legitimate to have an abortion under the statutory law) from committing the same sin. He also owns up to being in violation of law. His rules do matter, but in his pursuit of moral superiority he failed to fulfil each doctor’s obligation of care to the patient’s welfare. Each situation when pregnancy is the effect or rape or incest, or as in that case, the child would be born dead or with deformations or other afflictions resulting in immediate death is difficult. To reiterate, the choice is between the lesser of two evils. Some women would definitely prefer to give birth to a child with mangled skull, undeveloped brain, lacking nose and with dangling eye (press articles describe such obnoxiously the child) and keep it company in its suffering until natural death. Some women would prefer not to go through the trauma of prolonged watching their child’s anguish or spare it the suffering. Technically, the delivery was to be accelerated and the child would die naturally during it, or shortly thereafter…
The interesting paradox is that a fundamentalist Catholic’s conscience reaches as far as refusal to carry out an abortion, is some cases comes up a referral to a hospice or psychological care centre. There is much bitter truth in accusation that life-defenders are interested in defending the life between conception and birth. What happens later or what happens to a matter, not to mention the intercourse by which a woman got pregnant is beyond the scope of their interest. The child is to come to this world and who is going to bring it up, whether it will have proper care, a normal family whether it will have guaranteed means for subsistence, who it will grow into, etc. The Catholic doctrine thus fosters values and ideas and gives little care about humans, their feelings, suffering.
There are several other, more down-to-earth questions that deserve to be asked when looking into the scandal…
Why did the woman who wanted to have an abortion, turn to the hospital in charge of which professor Chazan was and why, after being turned away, did not she seek help with any other hospital? This question, though asked frequently, is a kind of pointless, as each and every public hospital should provide the woman with medical service she is legally entitled to have and the ‘conscience clause’ can be invoked by specific doctors, not institutions.
Is the timing of the breakout of the scandal accidental? Is it a coincidence it was publicised shortly after several doctors and students of medicine signed so-called declaration of faith, surrounded by controversies?
Is it the coincidence the lawyer who represents the woman is Mr Dubieniecki, the ex-son-in-law of the late president Kaczyński? Is he just grabbing the opportunity to put in an appearance in the media, to boot in complete opposition to his ex-wife’s uncle?
Mr Chazan’s decision to break the law conflicting with his beliefs was an example of civil disobedience. A big pity he is inconsistent in his deeds to refuses be disobedient all the way to reckon with a punishment. As a man of honour he would submit his resignation and suffer consequences, including paying a penalty imposed on the hospital he ran from his own pocket.
Reaction of the church and Catholic journalists speaks volumes about their attitude towards humankind. Professor Chazan has been made a martyr, is depicted as a victim, while suffering and feelings of the mother of the defected child are far in the background. The doctor who has saved the life is a persecuted while the moralists do not give a damn about the prolonged ordeal of the woman and her unborn child. While reading internet forums, one can see commentators almost unanimously take side of the woman. Again we see a growing dissonance between official statistics saying 90% of population of Poland are Roman Catholics and beliefs of majority of commentators (not necessarily on leftist / liberal forums) who think Mr Chazan is a cruel, unsympathetic bastard.
The disparity between Church’s official teachings and folks’ personal beliefs is unsurprising. The Church has not moved with the times and some points in its doctrine are inhuman. I doubt the Church will ever change its stance on abortion, but I believe in 100 years in-vitro will be accepted by the Church, just in the same way as other medical discoveries have been embraced by the Church, with considerable delay. Cross my heart, I recognise the problem the Church has with in-vitro insemination, but do not understand the evil of in-vitro. If people want to give their love to children, but for some medical reasons cannot have them, why should the medicine be prohibited from helping them?
Formally, Poland is a secular country. In practice, fundamentalist Catholics are growing in power. There is nothing wrong about high percentage of deeply religious people. The reason for concern is that they attempt to impose their beliefs on other people, with little respect to their autonomy. Unjustified withdrawal from the performance of ‘Golgota Picnic’ in Poznań in the wake of protests is one of the examples. The play was staged in theatres or other closed buildings and no one was compelled to buy tickets and see the performance, but defenders of morality wanted to prevent visitors from entering theatres… Another illustration is a ludicrous objection of a priest from Warsaw against putting up figurines of bull and bear (associated with symbols of demand and supply on stock market) outside the edifice of the Warsaw Stock Exchange who interprets bull and bear as pagan symbols. The more hilarious, although absolutely serious, hence absurdly scary, instance is a protest against Sunday yoga classes in Poznań…
The constitution of Poland guarantees its citizens freedom of religion, beliefs and autonomy of individuals. I hold those values dear and I do respect views of dissenters. I do understand someone might think yoga is a demonic set of exercises enslaving people and pushing them straight on the road into Satan’s arms. But they should understand other individuals might have a different opinion and the constitution guarantees them the right to attend the classes they want… And oddly enough, the louder the lunatics bleat they are persecuted, the more they meddle into not their businesses… How come?