in Catholic Circles

Poland’s Judiciary Rules on Proposed Restrictions to Abortion Access

ON OCTOBER 22, A RULING from the Polish Constitutional Tribunal tightened preexisting abortion laws to exclude the use of the procedure in cases of severe birth defects and fetal abnormalities. With an estimated 98 percent of abortions within the country attributable to fetal abnormalities and defects, the Tribunal’s ruling drastically impacts abortion access throughout Poland. Tensions over abortion access have run high since 2016, when the country’s Law and Justice Party first put forth restrictive legislation—a move met with a massive show of resistance in the form of street protests The proposals were subsequently withdrawn by the government.

With its decision, the Tribunal ruled that the cause of 98 percent of Polish abortions was henceforth unconstitutional. Within 48 hours, Polish prochoice activists instituted a “women’s strike” that saw more than 400,000 women across 400 cities and towns in Poland brave a global pandemic to oppose the ruling. Pandemic restrictions instituted by the Tribunal and its slate of judges also have fueled Abortion Access activism in the face of the ruling. In recent months, accusations have been leveled by some in the public and press that accuse prochoice opponents in the government of attempting to use the COVID-19 crisis as a means of cover while pushing through a fundamental change in abortion access at a time when the public remains unable to peacefully assemble to demonstrate opposition. With activists rejecting as no more than a token measure what President Andrzej Duda put forth as a “legislative solution”—proposing termination of any pregnancy endangering the mother’s life would be made legal while fetal defects would remain illegal—tensions have yet to ease. A month from the onset of the protests, the size of the crowds across Poland has not slackened.

Despite both attacks from extremist right-wing groups and the use of force and crackdowns by police, at the time of publication protests appear to be gaining strength in the face of the Tribunal’s ruling. Solidarity protests in a number of cities throughout the world—Oslo, London, Chicago, Glasgow, Brussels—have already occurred, and more are expected as the fight for reproductive choice in Poland takes on revolutionary proportions.

Mexico’s Supreme Court Blocks Decriminalization of Abortion in Veracruz

WITH A VOTE OF 4-1 AGAINST, Mexico’s Supreme Court blocked the decriminalization of abortion in the state of Veracruz in late July. The Court ruled against removing sections of the legal code pertaining to abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The ruling came after months of fervent opposition from Mexico’s Catholic bishops. The hierarchy vocally pushed to block the state of Veracruz’s legislative changes to ensure that the extension of alterations to abortion law throughout the country are obstructed. Currently, the legal status of abortion in Mexico extends up to a dozen weeks; is available only in cases of death, imminent peril to the mother’s life and malformation of the fetus; and can only be obtained in Mexico City and the state of Oaxaca.

Colombia’s Highest Court Refuses to Rule on Abortion Proposal

EARLY MARCH SAW COLOMBIA’S top court step away from ruling on expansions to legalized abortion throughout the country. A case was presented in absentia—brought forward by Natalia Bernal, a Colombian law professor living in France—which claimed abortion to be tantamount to torture and in violation of the rights of the unborn and women. While the initial lodging of the case was antagonistic towards preexisting abortion access laws in Colombia—2006 legislation permitting abortion in cases of rape, risk to the mother’s life and fetal abnormalities—the case quickly came into play as a review of changes to the abortion law that could potentially expand or eliminate abortion access.

Upon receipt of the case to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Magistrate Alejandro Linares interpreted
a challenge to the existing law as a challenge that could extend in either direction. Linares proposed reviewing the possibility of legalizing the procedure for any reason within the first16 weeks of pregnancy. According to portions of Linares’ ruling on the case reported by Colombian media, he cited the forfeiture of personal autonomy by pregnant women to external agents, including the state, beyond the four month marker.

Despite Magistrate Linares’ opinion and the precedent in personal and sexual autonomy set by the Court’s 2016 legalization of gay marriage, the Court ultimately withdrew itself from ruling. Ahead of its announcement to abstain, hundreds of protestors on both sides of the issue faced off. Prochoice opposition overwhelmingly constituted conservative Catholics, many of whom, like Bernal, sought to challenge the existing law with an eye to elimination. Following the abstention, Archbishop Luis Rueda Aparicio of Popayan reinforced conservative Catholic opposition to the existence, let alone expansion, of abortion access in a statement that declared, “The truth is that women don’t need abortion; what
they need is companionship and support.”

Between 2017 and 2018, Doctors Without Borders reported that 88 percent of the roughly 430 women
seeking abortions in Columbia reported at least one barrier in obtaining the procedure, even within the bounds of the three legally approved circumstances under which they may be administered.

Abortion Reform in Argentina Recalibrates in the Face of COVID-19

AFTER A DECADE AND A HALF of progress in legalizing on-demand abortion access, the efforts of activists in Argentina have met a new obstacle: COVID-19. Since 2008, the Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion has produced a bill to legalize abortion on demand every two years to the Argentine Parliament in order to keep the drafted legislation from losing parliamentary status. In June of 2018, years of effort culminated in a historic, first-ever vote to legalize on-demand abortion pass the House, though it fell just short of passing the Senate—a bittersweet victory that saw massive turnout on the part of citizens in the capital. Including more than 700 presentations from across Argentinian society and representing one of the most extensive discussions in the history of the Parliament, the 2018 session and vote are thought largely responsible for the “Green Tide” of abortion legalization activism that has swept Latin America.

The start of 2020 saw hopes run high in Argentina that years of effort would finally end in legalization. The newly elected president, Alberto Fernández, was the first in Argentine political history to have included a campaign plank for legalized abortion. In February, Fernández reaffirmed his commitment to legalization, though held off on announcing the specifics of his proposed plan until after the March 8 International Women’s Day March—a move that aroused suspicions that this might represent an effort on the part of the newly elected president to negotiate the terms of his legislation with the hierarchy of the Catholic church behind closed doors.

Near global lockdowns generated by COVID-19 later in March brought all legislative debate and planning on the issue to a screeching halt, however. As lockdown drags on, activists now find themselves in a particular bind. Observers have credited much of the success of the 2018 efforts to mass demonstrations generated by activists in the lead-up to the vote—with a heavy presence on the ground in and around the capital working to physically represent national public opinion on the issue. Current lockdown conditions currently preclude such gatherings, though activists worry that calling a remote session of Congress to address the issue would foster too lax an environment to maintain or increase the momentum necessary not simply to decriminalize abortion, but to legalize it. However, with the hereto support of the president, as well that of the heads of the legislative commissions and the presidents of each congressional chamber, activists fear losing an unprecedented opportunity. With the Foundation for the Study and Research for Women estimating that only 20–25 percent of Argentina’s 350,000–450,000 abortions fall into the category of legally obtained, this life-threatening issue remains up in the air, as does the lifesaving legislation that could eradicate it.

Kenyan Bishops Stridently Oppose Abortion and Sex Education Bills Amid Teen Pregnancy Spike

IN THE AFTERMATH OF A Kenyan Health Information Systems Survey that revealed “152,829 teenagers aged between 10 and 19 have been impregnated” from the onset of Kenya’s COVID-19 lockdown up to June of this year, Catholic bishops in the country have stepped forward to vehemently oppose abortion and sex education reform legislation. On June 21, at the end of a televised mass during which their remarks were read aloud, the bishops stated that they were “totally opposed to those trying to introduce Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) in schools as a way of curbing teen pregnancies.”

Almost simultaneously, these bishops declaimed against abortion provisions provided in the same bill, Reproductive Health Bill 2019, which entered the upper parliament of Kenya in July. In addition to CSE, the proposed legislation also seeks to loosen restrictions for access to abortion. In a letter seen by some observers as a warning shot to Catholic Members of Parliament, the bishops stated that provisions of the bill represent a “foreign agenda,” the wording of which the bishops claim is intentionally vague, implying a direct substitution of abortion for talk of sexual and reproductive rights.
Bishop Philip Anyolo, chair of the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops, publicly stated that the purported social benefits of the bill are not driven by public opinion. “It is sexual rights activists,” he accused, “who are implementing sexuality programmes for children who will determine the definition of  ‘age appropriate’ [education], not the policymakers who [mistakenly] believe that the use of the term will protect children.”

With schools shuttered by COVID-19 and the subsequent teen pregnancy boom; the preexisting high rate of illegally obtained, frequently dangerous, abortions; and the high number of post-birth infanticides across Kenya, the bishops’ remarks stand in direct opposition to the undeniable reality of a series of intersecting health crises. At present, the current constitution of Kenya permits abortion only in the event that carrying to term threatens the life of the mother. The proposed Reproductive Health Bill 2019 advocates family planning services, surrogacy, legal and safe abortion and comprehensive sex education.

Sex Abuse Cover-Up Generates Print and Online Campaign Directed at Pope Francis by Polish Advocacy Group

“THE LACK OF A DECISIVE reaction by the church hierarchy to reports of reprehensible behavior by some bishops is cause for public scandal and harms the good of the church,” read a fullpage advertisement taken out in Rome’s daily La Repubblica newspaper on June 29. Placed by Polish group EnoughHarm, the ad went on to encourage Pope Francis to “repair our church” by acknowledging and making amends for the harm done to victims of sexual abuse.

In response to EnoughHarm’s appeal, Spokesman for the Vatican Matteo Bruni told the Associated Press (AP) that the pope had been informed about both the group’s ad and a corresponding online petition on the group’s website. Bruni assured the AP that “The church must do everything possible so that canonical norms are applied, that cases of abuse are brought to light and those guilty of the crimes are punished.” In addition, he stated, “The Holy Father was informed about the appeal and prays for those who sent it.”

Hoping to encourage an intervention in sexual molestation cases in which bishops stand accused of covering for abusive priests, Enough-Harm’s ad comes in the wake of Pope Francis’ 2019 alteration of canon law allowing for the punishment of bishops found to have ignored or actively concealed the actions of abusive priests. At the time of EnoughHarm’s ad, an investigation into the conduct of Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki for covering up clerical abuse was already underway, with an additional investigation into Kielce Seminary being opened by the Vatican’s Office of the Clergy close to the time EnoughHarm’s appeal was published in La Reppublica.