Abortion: whose life, whose choice?

Wednesday 28 September, 18.00 - 19.30 , Państwomiasto, ul. Andersa 29 00-159, Warszawa Battle of Ideas Europe

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Poland’s abortion laws are already among the strictest in Europe, with terminations only legal in cases of rape, severe prenatal defects or when the mother’s life is at risk. Yet pro-life groups, including the Catholic Church, are pushing for even tighter restrictions and a draft law is now being considered by the Polish parliament. Only in cases where the mother’s life is directly at risk would abortion be allowable. Penalties for providing an illegal abortion would be increased and affect not only the doctors but also the women seeking to terminate their pregnancy. Given the close relations between the current PiS (Law and Justice) government and the Church, there would appear to be strong parliamentary support for such a law.

But while the legality of abortion is in question, the demand for it is not. It’s estimated that every year around 100,000 pregnancies are terminated, only a couple of hundred of which are done legally. For a whole host of reasons, women want to terminate pregnancies, whether it is a young girl who is simply not ready for motherhood through to an older woman with too many children already. Whatever the reason for wanting a termination, women will go to great lengths and risks to obtain one - legally or illegally. If an abortion cannot be obtained in a proper clinic under the supervision of a trained medical team, it will be attempted in more dangerous circumstances, at worst risking the mother’s life.

Those who oppose abortion argue that terminating a pregnancy means ending a human being’s life - it is the equivalent of murder. Only where there is a stark choice between one life - the mother’s - and another - the foetus’s - could there ever be a moral justification for terminating a pregnancy. There are alternatives to abortion in many cases, from providing greater financial support to parents, as proposed by PiS, through to putting unwanted children up for adoption. While these may be painful choices for mothers, they are morally more acceptable than ending a human life, say opponents.

Yet others argue that it is vital that women are allowed the freedom to choose. In a new book, The Moral Case for Abortion, Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the UK’s largest abortion provider and a veteran campaigner on the issue, argues that there is a strong moral case for recognising autonomy and conscience in personal decision-making about reproductive intentions. More than this, she argues that to prevent a woman from making her own choice to continue or end her pregnancy is to undermine the essence of her humanity. True respect for human life and true regard for individual conscience, she suggests, demand that we respect a woman’s right to decide.

What should be done about Poland’s abortion laws? Is it morally right to restrict abortion even further? Perhaps the current law strikes the right balance between the rights of mother and foetus? Or should the abortion law be liberalised, recognising not only the dangers of making abortion illegal, but supporting the right of women to make judgements for themselves?