POLAND – Abortion cannot be permitted on mental health grounds, declares Polish church

Poland’s Catholic church has declared that it is not legal, ethical or beneficial to women to allow abortion on the grounds that they suffer from a mental health problem. Permitting this would effectively mean “the re-legalisation of abortion on demand”, warn the bishops. They also said: “Abortion is not a therapeutic method used in treatment. Killing a child cannot be considered a means of restoring a woman’s health.”

Their position – which is contradicted by leading medical bodies and by the World Health Organization – has also been rejected by reproductive rights organisations in Poland, who lso argue that the church has misinterpreted or misrepresented the law.

Since January 2021 – when a constitutional court ruling banning abortion on the grounds of birth defects went into force – terminations have only been legally permitted in two cases: if the pregnancy results from a criminal act (such as rape) or if it threatens the mother’s life or health.

Many hospitals and doctors have interpreted the latter justification as including cases in which a pregnancy threatens the woman’s mental health. That has led to psychiatrists’ opinions being used to obtain abortions.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of Poland’s conservative ruling party, has defended the current near-total abortion ban by noting that “among the options for allowing abortion is mental health”. But then, he also says: “…It is easy to “arrange abortion abroad” in other cases.”

However, there have also been documented cases of doctors refusing to accept psychiatrists’ opinions as grounds for abortion. “Doctors are afraid not only of losing the right to practise, but also of criminal liability,” said the director of one hospital in 2021.

Now, the Polish Episcopal Conference (KEP), the central organ of the Catholic church in Poland, has claimed: “There is no doubt that in the course of pregnancy there are situations where a woman’s mental health deteriorates. At first glance, abortion may seem like the only way to relieve such suffering, but in reality it is not. Restoration of mental health is carried out with the help of therapeutic methods, in particular pharmacological therapy, psychotherapy and psychoeducation.”

Now a hospital has confirmed that it refused to terminate the pregnancy of a woman with a fatally malformed fetus — despite psychiatrists saying it threatened her mental health — because they feared prosecution.

And a church committee has recommended, instead of abortion, in cases where a woman is suffering mental health problems, “the church and the state as well as non-governmental organisations [should] offer the woman comprehensive support” – such as homes for single mothers, adoption centres, perinatal hospitals and so-called “windows of life” where they can leave infants.

SOURCE: Notes from Poland, 5 September 2023