Nearly one hundred prominent Catholic theologians, historians and lay people from Europe and the U.S. have written to Poland’s bishops to express concerns about the prelates’ advocacy in favor of a new law that would make abortion illegal in their country under almost all circumstances.
In an open letter released Tuesday, the signers say they want to “engage in dialogue and reflection” about the possible consequences of the new law.
Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe since 1993, allowing for the termination of a pregnancy only in cases of grave fetal defect, rape, and threat to the life of the mother, and only in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
A new proposed bill, which has been publicly backed by the Polish bishops’ conference, would make abortion illegal under all circumstances, except for when the death of the fetus would be the unintended result of saving a woman’s life.
The letter-writers state at the beginning of their document that they “uphold the sanctity of all human life, including the right to life of women and their unborn children.”
“However, we also acknowledge that sometimes women and girls face agonizing decisions about whether or not to continue with a pregnancy that is the consequence of an act of sexual violence; that poses a serious threat to their own health, or that would result in the birth of a profoundly disabled or terminally ill child,” they continue.
“While we respect those who decide to continue with such a pregnancy, we do not believe that this decision can be imposed upon them through moral coercion, and far less through the force of law,” they state.
“In our view, the latter constitutes a violation of a woman’s freedom of conscience and personal dignity, and it runs counter to the Catholic tradition’s distinction between morality and legality,” they continue.
Among the signers of the letter are several noted global theologians, including: Tina Beattie, from the UK’s University of Roehampton; Ursula King, from the University of Bristol; Jean Porter, from the University of Notre Dame; Susan Ross, from Loyola University Chicago; and Jan Jans, from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University.
More than two dozen Polish persons have also signed -- including the editors of the Magazyn Świąteczny and Znak magazines -- as well as Lesley-Anne Knight, the former head of the global Catholic charity confederation Caritas Internationalis who now leads the Nelson Mandela founded organization The Elders.
The proposed new Polish law has drawn large street protests, with some using coat-hangers as a crude symbol for the danger woman could face should they choose to perform their own abortions if the law were adopted.
The Catholic bishops have called for adoption of the law to mark the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of the country’s first Christian king, Mieszko I.
In a statement March 30 -- read aloud in many churches on April 3, Divine Mercy Sunday this year -- the bishops said: “In this jubilee year of Poland’s baptism, we urge all people of goodwill, believers and nonbelievers, to take action to ensure full legal protection of unborn lives.”
The letter-writers state that the “criminalization of those who may be victims of violence or who may have made a deeply distressing decision to abort in tragic circumstances seems to betray the call to mercy and compassion which Pope Francis insists must be at the heart of the Gospel message.”
“We appreciate the complex ethical challenges involved in any intentionally abortive act,” state the signers. “However, we also believe that our Catholic faith calls us to be attentive to suffering in all its forms, and to respond with trust in the mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God when faced with profound moral dilemmas that offer no clear solution.
“In situations where abortion is deemed necessary -- such as those currently permitted under Polish law -- we believe that access to early, safe and legal abortion is essential,” they state. “Making abortion illegal does not save the lives of unborn children. It kills women who would rather risk death than carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.”
The writers also urge consideration of use of contraception to prevent the need of abortion.
“There is a body of evidence to show that the best way to prevent abortion is to respect women’s human dignity and freedom of conscience with regard to reproductive decisions, by guaranteeing access to reliable methods of birth control,” they state.
“To deny such access and to criminalize abortion as well seems to instrumentalize women as reproductive bodies rather than as full and equal human beings made in the image of God,” they write.