SZCZECIN, Poland – The Polish state has banned abortion for 29 years, but that has done little to stop women from accessing the procedure, making Father Tomasz Kancelarczyk a busy man.
The Roman Catholic priest played ultrasonic sounds of what he described as the fetal heartbeat during his sermons to dissuade women from considering abortion. He threatened underage girls by telling their parents if they had an abortion. He allows couples to wait for hospital abortions because of fetal abnormalities, which was allowed until the law was tightened last year.
But Father Kancelarczyk’s most effective tool, he admits, may actually be something the state has largely ignored: helping single mothers by providing them with accommodation, supermarket vouchers , children’s clothing and, if necessary, an attorney to track down abusers.
“Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the number of cases,” said Father Kancelarczyk, 54, during a recent visit to his Little Feet House, a shelter he runs in a village. nearby for single women, some pregnant, some with children, all with difficulty. “There should be 200 or 300 houses like this in Poland. There is a vacuum”.
Strict Banning abortion is common in some US states, Poland provides a laboratory, for how such bans spread across societies. And it is evident in Poland that the state, if it is determined to stop abortion, is less focused on what happens afterwards – a child in need of help and support.
The Polish government has some of the most generous family welfare benefits in the region, but still offers minimal support to single mothers and parents of children with disabilities, like in parts of the United States where abortion bans are in place.
“They call themselves pro-life, but they only care about them,” said Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation of Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw-based advocacy group that opposes the government’s ban. care about women until they give birth. “There is no systematic support available to mothers in Poland, especially mothers of children with disabilities.”
This is one reason the number of abortions doesn’t seem to have really gone down – abortions are merely carried out underground or out of the country. Although the number of legal abortions has dropped to about 1,000 a year, abortion rights activists estimate that 150,000 Polish women end their pregnancies each year, despite the ban, on the use of abortion pills. pregnancy or traveling abroad.
Poland’s fertility rate, currently at 1.3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in Europe – half what it was during the Communist era, when the country had one of most free abortion in the world.
The legislation’s ban, even staunch anti-abortion fighters like Father Kancelarczyk have admitted, has made no “obvious difference” to the numbers.
On the other hand, providing food, housing or childcare can sometimes make a difference, and Father Kancelarczyk, who raises funds from donations, proudly says that support. helping him “save” 40 pregnancies a year.
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One is by Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who refuses to reveal her name for fear of discrimination in her deeply Catholic community.
When she was pregnant with her second child, she said the child’s father and family shunned her. There is no bank to lend her money because she has no job. No one wants to hire her because she’s pregnant. And she was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that she was “out of work”.
“The state completely abandoned single mothers,” she said.
Then one day, as she was sitting on the floor in her small unfurnished apartment, her father Kancelarczyk, who had been warned by a friend, called, encouraged her to keep the baby and offered to help.
“One day I had nothing,” Beata said. “The next day, he showed up with all this: furniture, clothes, diapers. I can even choose my stroller color. “
Nine years later, Beata works as an accountant and her chosen son, Michal, is doing well in school.
For many women, Father Kancelarczyk turns out to be the only safety net – although his charity comes with a brand of polarizing Christian zeal, a division that is clearly visible in Szczecin.
Father Kancelarczyk’s gothic red-brick church tower stands directly across from a liberal arts center whose windows are adorned with a row of black lightning – a symbol of the Polish abortion rights movement – and a The poster declared, “My body, my choice”.
Every year, Father Kancelarczyk organizes the largest anti-abortion march in Poland with thousands of people departing from his church and confronting protesters across the street. Before a local gay pride parade, he once called on his communities to “cleanse the streets”.
He receives hate mail almost every day, he said, calling it “Satan’s work.”
Ms. Kacpura, who opposes the government’s ban, says the lack of state support, especially for single mothers, has opened up space for people like Father Kancelarczyk to “teach” “Women who feel they are struggling financially and emotionally.
Under the Communists, childcare was free, and most Polish workplaces had facilities in place to encourage mothers to join the workforce. But that system collapsed after 1989, while an emboldened Roman Catholic Church was behind the 1993 abortion ban because it also rekindled the vision of women as mothers and caregivers at home. .
The nationalist and conservative Law and Justice Party, elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw opportunity and adopted one of Europe’s most generous child welfare programs . It was a revolution in Polish family policy.
But it still lacks childcare, a prerequisite for working mothers, as well as special support for parents of children with disabilities. In the past decade, groups of parents of children with disabilities have twice occupied the Polish Parliament to protest the lack of state support, in 2014 and 2018.
When someone contacts Father Kancelarczyk about a woman contemplating an abortion – “usually a girlfriend” – he sometimes calls the pregnant woman. When she didn’t want to talk, he said he would find a way to touch her and start a conversation.
He also advises fathers, waving ultrasound images in the faces of men who want to ditch their pregnant girlfriends. “If men behave properly, women won’t have abortions,” he said.
Although he was loathed by many, he was admired in the religious communities where he preached.
Monika Niklas, a 42-year-old mother of two from Szczecin, first attended Mass with Father Kancelarczyk not long after she learned that her unborn child had Down syndrome. This was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal abnormalities, and she was contemplating an abortion. “I think my world is falling apart,” she said.
During his service, Father Kancelarczyk played a video from his phone with what he described as a fetal heartbeat.
Niklas recalls: “It was emotional. “After Mass, we went to talk to him, and told him about our situation.” He was one of the first to tell her and her husband that they would make it and offered his support.
After her son Krzys was born, Niklas gave up her career as an architect to take care of him full-time. Krzys, now nine, has only one spot at one school this fall, an example of government support not matching their needs.
Now, she advises expectant parents of disabled children, trying to get them to keep their baby – but not too much.
“I never just tell them, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ ’cause it’s going to be difficult,” she says. “But if you accept that your life will be different from what you planned, you can be very happy.”
“We have these ideas about what our children will be like — lawyers, doctors, astronauts,” she added. “Krzys taught me about love.”
But of all her advice, she says, there’s only one that’s barely there: an abortion ban.
“This doesn’t affect how people make decisions,” she said. “Those who want an abortion by all means do it, only abroad.”
Many women here agree.
Kasia, who also prefers not to use her full name because of the stigma surrounding the issue, is one of nine women currently living at Father Kancelarczyk’s shelter. When she was 23 years pregnant. She said her boyfriend abused her – the police refused to intervene – and then left her. Her mother kicked her out of the house. A friend contacted an abortion clinic across the border in Germany.
“Not difficult,” she said of the illegal termination. “The problem is getting the phone number.”
In the end, it was a near-miscarriage in the 8th week of pregnancy that made Kasia change her mind and persuade her to carry a surrogate.
Father Kancelarczyk not only offered her free accommodation in his shelter but was also the lawyer who took her ex-boyfriend to court. He is currently serving a 10-month sentence and could lose custody of his children.
“I feel safe now,” Kasia said.
Father Kancelarczyk said the number of women who referred him because they were considering abortion had not increased as the Polish ban was tightened because of fetal abnormalities. But he still supports the ban.
“The law always has a normative effect,” he said. “What is allowed is considered good, and what is forbidden is bad.”