SZCZECIN, Poland — The Polish state has banned abortion for 29 years, but that has done little to prevent women from finding access to 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 dissuade women considering an abortion. He has threatened teenage girls with telling their parents if they have an abortion. He hectored couples as they waited at the hospital for abortions on account of fetal abnormalities, which were permitted until the law was further tightened last year.
But Father Kancelarczyk’s most effective tool, he acknowledges, may actually be something the state has mostly neglected: helping single mothers by providing them with shelter, supermarket vouchers, baby clothes and, if need be, lawyers to go after violent partners.
“Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the number of these cases,” Father Kancelarczyk, 54, said during a recent visit to his Little Feet House, a shelter he runs in a nearby village for single women, some pregnant, some with children, all with difficulties. “There should be 200 or 300 houses like this is Poland. There is a vacuum.”
As strict abortion bans proliferate in some American states, Poland offers a laboratory, of sorts, for how such bans ripple through societies. And one thing evident in Poland is that the state, if determined to stop abortions, is less focused on what comes afterward — a child who needs help and support.
Poland’s government has some of the region’s most generous family welfare benefits, yet it still offers only minimal support for single mothers and parents of disabled children, much the same as in the parts of the United States where abortion bans are being put in place.
“They call themselves pro-life, but they are only interested in women until they give birth,” said Krystyna Kacpura, the 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 mothers of disabled children.”
This is one reason the number of abortions does not appear to have actually dropped — abortions have merely been driven underground or out of the country. While legal abortions have dropped to about 1,000 a year, abortion-rights activists estimate that 150,000 Polish women terminate pregnancies every year, despite the ban, either using abortion pills or by traveling abroad.
Poland’s fertility rate, currently at 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 die-hard anti-abortion warriors like Father Kancelarczyk concede, has made “no discernible difference” to the numbers.
Offering food, housing or a place in child care, on the other hand, can sometimes make a difference, and Father Kancelarczyk, who raises money through donations, says proudly that such aid helps him “save” 40 pregnancies a year.
The Issue of Abortion Around the World
An evolving landscape. Women’s access to abortion continues to be debated around the globe. Here’s a look at the state of affairs in some countries:
Colombia. The country’s top court decriminalized abortion in 2022, making it the third major Latin American nation to allow access to the procedure. The decision paves the way for abortions to become widely available across this historically conservative, Catholic country.
Guatemala. After lawmakers passed a sweeping new bill mandating up to 10 years of jail time for women who obtain abortions, protests erupted. A few days later, in an abrupt reversal that surprised analysts, President Alejandro Giammattei said he would veto the bill.
Mexico. In 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court issued a historic decision that decriminalized abortion. The move set a legal precedent for the nation, but applying it to all of Mexico’s states will be a long path, and several challenges remain.
Poland. The country is one of the few that has moved to restrict abortion in recent years. A near-total ban went into effect in January 2021, fueling discontent among those who believe human freedoms are being eroded under the increasingly autocratic Law and Justice Party.
China. The country’s central government said last September that it intended to reduce the prevalence of “medically unnecessary” abortions. In recent years, China has been focusing its efforts toward promoting childbirth and slowing the population’s aging.
Thailand. The Thai Parliament voted in 2021 to make abortion legal in the first trimester, while keeping penalties in place for women who undergo it later in their pregnancies. Advocates say the measure doesn’t go far enough.
Argentina. In 2020, the country became the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion — a landmark vote in a conservative region and a victory for a grass-roots movement that turned years of rallies into political power.
One was that of Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who did not want to disclose her full name for fear of stigma in her deeply Catholic community.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she said the father of the child and her family shunned her. No bank would lend her money because she had no job. No one wanted to hire her because she was pregnant. And she was refused unemployment benefits on the grounds that she was “not employable.”
“The state completely abandons single mothers,” she said.
Then one day, as she was sitting on the floor in her tiny unfurnished apartment, Father Kancelarczyk, who was alerted by a friend, called, encouraged her to keep the baby and offered help.
“One day I had nothing,” Beata said. “The next day he 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, thrives at school.
For many women, Father Kancelarczyk has turned out to be the only safety net — though his charity comes with a brand of Christian fervor that polarizes, a division on stark display in Szczecin.
Father Kancelarczyk’s gothic red brick church towers directly opposite 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 poster proclaiming, “My body, my choice.”
Every year, Father Kancelarczyk organizes Poland’s biggest anti-abortion march with thousands departing from his church and facing off with counterprotesters across the street. Before a local gay pride parade, he once called on his congregants to “disinfect the streets.”
He gets hate mail nearly every day, he says, calling it “Satan’s work.”
Ms. Kacpura, the advocate who opposes the government ban, says that the lack of state support especially for single mothers has opened up space for people like Father Kancelarczyk to “indoctrinate” women who find themselves in financial and emotional distress.
Under Communism, child care was free and most Polish workplaces had on-site facilities to encourage mothers to join the work force. But that system collapsed after 1989, while an emboldened Roman Catholic Church put its shoulder behind the 1993 abortion ban as it also rekindled a vision of women as mothers and caregivers at home.
The nationalist and conservative Law and Justice Party, which was elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw opportunity and passed one of Europe’s most generous child benefits programs. It was a revolution in Poland’s family policy.
But it still lacks child care, a precondition for mothers to go to work, as well as special support for the parents of disabled children. Over the past decade, groups of parents of disabled children 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 abortion — “usually a girlfriend” — sometimes he calls the pregnant woman. When she does not want to talk, he says he will engineer bumping into her and force a conversation.
He also admonishes the fathers, waving ultrasound images in the faces of men looking to leave their pregnant girlfriends. “If men behaved decently, women would not get abortions,” he said.
While abhorred by many, he is admired in the religious communities where he preaches.
Monika Niklas, a 42-year-old mother of two from Szczecin, first attended Mass with Father Kancelarczyk not long after she had learned that her unborn baby had Down syndrome. This was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal abnormalities, and she had been contemplating an abortion. “I thought my world was crumbling down,” she said.
During his service, Father Kancelarczyk had played a video from his phone with the sound of what he described as a fetal heartbeat.
“It was so moving,” Ms. Niklas recalled. “After the 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 they were going to make it and offered support.
After her son Krzys was born, Ms. Niklas gave up on her career as an architect to take care of him full time. Krzys, now 9, got a place in a school only this fall, one example of how government support falls far short of matching their needs.
She now advises expecting parents of disabled children, trying to counsel them to keep their babies — but without sugarcoating it.
“I never just tell them, ‘It will be all right,’ because it will be hard,” she said. “But if you accept that your life will be different from what you had envisaged, you can be very happy.”
“We have these ideas about what our children will be — a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut,” she added. “Krzys taught me about love.”
But in all her counsel, she said, one thing barely features: the abortion ban.
“This has not impacted how people make decisions,” she said. “Those who want to get an abortion do it anyway, only abroad.”
Many women here concurred.
Kasia, who also did not want her full name used because the stigma that surrounds the issue, is one of nine women currently living at Father Kancelarczyk’s shelter. She was 23 when she became pregnant. She said 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 is not difficult,” she said of getting an illegal termination. “It is a matter of getting a phone number.”
In the end, it was a near-miscarriage in the eighth week of her pregnancy that changed Kasia’s mind and persuaded her to carry out her pregnancy.
Father Kancelarczyk offered her not just free room and board in his shelter but a lawyer, who took the former boyfriend to court. He is now serving a 10-month sentence and might lose custody.
“I feel safe now,” Kasia said.
Father Kancelarczyk says the number of women referred to him because they were considering abortion did not increase when Poland’s ban was tightened for fetal abnormalities. 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 forbidden as bad.”