SZCZECIN, Poland — The Polish state has banned abortion for 29 years, but that has done little to prevent women from accessing the procedure, leaving the Rev. Tomasz Kancelarczyk a busy man.
The Roman Catholic priest plays ultrasound audio of what he describes as fetal heartbeats in his sermons to deter women considering abortion. He has threatened teenagers with telling their parents if they have an abortion. He intimidated couples as they waited in hospital for abortions due to fetal abnormalities, which were allowed until the law was tightened further last year.
But Father Kancelarczyk’s most effective tool, he acknowledges, may actually be something the state has largely neglected: helping single mothers by providing shelter, grocery vouchers, baby clothes and, if necessary, lawyers to go after violent couples.
“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the number of these cases,” Father Kancelarczyk, 54, said during a recent visit to Little Feet House, a shelter he runs in a nearby town for single women, some pregnant, others with children. , all with difficulties. “There should be 200 or 300 houses like this in Poland. There is a void.”
As strict abortion bans proliferate in some US states, Poland offers a kind of laboratory for how such bans spread through societies. And one thing evident in Poland is that the state, if it is determined to stop abortions, is less focused on what comes after: a child who needs help and support.
Poland’s government has some of the most generous family welfare benefits in the region, but it still offers only minimal support for single mothers and parents of disabled children, much like parts of the United States where family welfare is being banned. abortion.
“They call themselves pro-life, but they are only interested in women until they give birth,” said Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw-based advocacy group that opposes the government ban. “There is no systemic support for mothers in Poland, especially for mothers of disabled children.”
This is one of the reasons why the number of abortions does not seem to have decreased: abortions have simply been carried out clandestinely or outside the country. While legal abortions have fallen to about 1,000 a year, abortion rights activists estimate that 150,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies each year, despite the ban, either by using abortion pills or by traveling abroad.
Poland’s fertility rate, currently 1.3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in Europe: half of what it was during communist times, when the country had one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world. .
The legal ban, even staunch anti-abortion warriors like Father Kancelarczyk acknowledge, has made “no discernible difference” in the numbers.
Offering food, shelter or a place in childcare, on the other hand, can sometimes make a difference, and Father Kancelarczyk, who raises money through donations, proudly says that help helps him “save” 40 pregnancies a year.
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One was that of Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who did not want to reveal her full name for fear of stigma in her deeply Catholic community.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she said the child’s father and his family avoided her. No bank would lend her money because she didn’t have a job. Nobody wanted to hire her because she was pregnant. And she was denied her unemployment benefits on the grounds that she “wasn’t employable.”
“The state completely abandons single mothers,” she said.
Then one day, as she was sitting on the floor of her small, unfurnished apartment, Father Kancelarczyk, who had been tipped off by a friend, called her, encouraged her to keep the baby and offered to help.
“One day I had nothing,” said Beata. “The next day she shows up with all these things: furniture, clothes, diapers. I could even choose the color of my stroller.”
Nine years later, Beata works as an accountant and the son she chose to have, Michal, is thriving at school.
For many women, Father Kancelarczyk has turned out to be the only safety net, although his charity comes with a polarizing brand of Christian fervor, a division that is clearly on display in Szczecin.
Father Kancelarczyk’s red-brick Gothic church rises directly across from a liberal arts center whose windows are adorned with a row of black lightning bolts, the symbol of Poland’s abortion-rights movement, and a banner that proclaims, “My body, my choice.
Every year, Father Kancelarczyk organizes Poland’s largest anti-abortion march, with thousands of people streaming out of his church and confronting counter-protesters across the street. Before a local gay pride parade, he once called on his parishioners to “sanitize the streets.”
He gets hate mail almost every day, he says, calling it “the work of Satan.”
Ms Kacpura, the advocate opposing the government ban, says the lack of state support, especially for single mothers, has opened up a space for people like Fr Kancelarczyk to “indoctrinate” women who find themselves in financial and emotional difficulties.
Under communism 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 supported the 1993 abortion ban, as it also revived a view of women as mothers and caretakers in the home.
The conservative, nationalist Law and Justice Party, which was elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw the opportunity and approved one of the most generous child benefit programs in Europe. It was a revolution in family politics in Poland.
But it still lacks childcare, a precondition for mothers to go to work, as well as special support for parents of disabled children. Over the past decade, groups of parents of disabled children 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 who is considering an abortion, “usually a girlfriend,” he sometimes calls the pregnant woman. When she doesn’t want to talk, he says that he will try to bump into her and force a conversation.
It also admonishes parents, waving ultrasound images on the faces of men looking to get their girlfriends pregnant. “If men behaved decently, women wouldn’t have abortions,” she said.
Although he is loathed by many, he is admired in the religious communities where he preaches.
Monika Niklas, a 42-year-old mother of two from Szczecin, attended Mass for the first time with Father Kancelarczyk shortly after learning her unborn baby had Down syndrome. This was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal abnormalities, and she had been thinking about having an abortion. “I thought my world was falling apart,” she said.
During his service, Father Kancelarczyk had played a video on his phone with the sound of what he described as a fetal heartbeat.
“It was very moving,” Ms. Niklas recalled. “After mass, we went to talk to him and told him about our situation.” He was one of the first people to tell her and her husband that they would make it and offered her support.
After the birth of her son Krzys, Ms. Niklas gave up her career as an architect to care for him full time. Krzys, now 9, got a place at a school this fall, an example of how government support is falling short of meeting his needs.
Now he advises prospective parents of disabled children, trying to advise them to keep their babies, but without sugar-coating it.
“I never just tell them, ‘Everything will be fine,’ because it will be difficult,” he said. “But if you accept that your life will be different from what you had imagined, you can be very happy.”
“We have these ideas about what our children will be: a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut,” he added. “Krzys taught me about love.”
But in all his advice, he said, only one thing appears: the ban on abortion.
“This has not affected the way people make decisions,” he said. “Those who want to abort do it anyway, just abroad.”
Many women here agreed.
Kasia, who also did not want her full name used due to the stigma surrounding the issue, is one of nine women currently living in Father Kancelarczyk’s shelter. She was 23 years old when she became pregnant. She said that her boyfriend had abused her (the police refused to intervene) and then left her. Her mother had kicked her out of the house. A friend contacted an abortion clinic across the border in Germany.
“It’s not hard,” he said of getting an illegal termination. “It’s a matter of getting a phone number.”
In the end, it was a near miss in the eighth week of her pregnancy that changed Kasia’s mind and convinced her to carry her pregnancy.
Father Kancelarczyk not only offered him free room and board in his shelter, but also a lawyer, who took the ex-boyfriend to court. He is now serving a 10-month sentence and could lose custody.
“I feel safe now,” Kasia said.
Father Kancelarczyk says the number of women who referred him because they were considering abortion did not increase when Poland’s ban on fetal abnormalities was tightened. But he still supports the ban.
“The law always has a normative effect,” he said. “What is permitted is perceived as good and what is prohibited as bad.”