Los Angeles Times

via Pro-Life E-News, Canada

KOTOWICE, Poland – The doctors of the Silesian Medical Academy in a well-to-do suburb of this dreary mining town say they have experienced a remarkable epiphany – one that seems to be sweeping the Polish medical community with a missionary’s zeal.

Just five years ago, a woman could enter the modern obstetrics ward here and receive an abortion, with few questions asked. Today all doors are closed to abortion patients; the staff of the prominent state-run hospital has declared it unethical to terminate a pregnancy.

“Our hospital has been unable to put together a medical team – a doctor, anestethologist, nurse and midwife – that is willing to perform abortions,” said Jerzy Sikora, 40, a senior gynaecologist and one of many staff members who performed abortions in the past.

New law in effect

It’s not that abortion is illegal in Poland. A new law passed in October – amid widespread public protests – relaxes a 1993 statute that ended the long-time Communist-era practice of abortion on demand and was among the most restrictive in Europe.

In January, it once again became legal for women to get an abortion for so-called social reasons, including situations in which the mother-to-be is unable emotionally or financially, to cope with her pregnancy.

But what abortion rights advocates won in a tough parliamentary struggle, they are now losing in the hearts and minds of doctors across Poland. Since the new law was proposed, medical associations in ever region of the country have pronounced abortion unethical and “against the very essence of the profession of a doctor,” in the words of one such declaration.

Sceptics find the sudden pangs of medical conscience difficult to understand, and suggest that some doctors are moved more by politics and economics than by the innermost voices of their souls.

Polish health employees are notoriously underpaid, and the underground abortion industry has been a lucrative source of extra cash for them.

Abortion has also been a major flash point between the ruling coalition of former Communists and a resurgent opposition led by the staunchly Roman Catholic Solidarity trade union. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next fall, and abortion is shaping up as a central theme.

But Sikora and other doctors far removed from the din of politics say four years of rigid antiabortion restrictions triggered profound personal awakening that has little to do with current events.

For the first time, they say, physicians were compelled to face the moral implications of abortion, which they had previously accepted as a routine surgical procedure and a common form of birth control.

“At the moment when women stopped coming to us, I realized I didn’t have this sad obligation anymore,” said Andrzemj Witek, 39, a top gynaecologist at the Silesian Medical Academy. “Now when the situation of abortion arises again, something inside of me says, ‘Stop. This is wrong.'”

Hospital after hospital has turned women away seeking abortions, invoking a clause in the amended statue that allows medical workers to refuse to participate in the procedure for reasons of conscience. In the western town of Zielona Gora, where there is only one hospital, it is impossible to have an abortion because all doctors have raised personal objections.

The Catholic Church, which fiercely opposes abortion, has embraced the extraordinary development and is actively encouraging doctors to stand their ground. In a far-reaching appeal signed by Archbishop Damian Zimon, public health service employees were urged “not to annihilate conceived life” just because legislators made that legally possible.

Secret views

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Poles favor broader abortion rights, but most are unwilling to confirm in public what they tell pollsters privately. Public outrage over the new law’s problems has been muted.

Despite the newfound confluence of church teachings and medical practice, doctors have carefully avoided linking their abortion stance to religion and have instead emphasized the Hippocratic oath’s respect for life. Many support other provisions in the abortion statute – including making contraceptives more readily and cheaply available – that the church strongly opposes.

But some doctors acknowledge that there has been another motivation as well. As the abortion debate becomes more [polarized, they see unsettling parallels with the United States where violence has been known to replace dialogue.