Polish Priest’s War on Abortion Focuses on Helping Single Moms

SZCZECIN, Poland — Abortion has been banned in Poland for 29 years, but that hasn’t stopped 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 dissuade women from considering abortion. He threatened teenage girls to tell their parents if they had abortions. I have harassed couples while they waited in hospital for abortions due to fetal abnormalities, which were allowed until the law was further tightened last year.

But Father Kancelarczyk’s most effective tool, he acknowledges, may actually be something the state has most often overlooked: helping single mothers with shelter, supermarket vouchers, clothes for babies and, if necessary, lawyers to prosecute abusive partners.

“Sometimes I’m 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 in Poland. There is a void.”

as strict abortion bans proliferate in some US states, Poland offers a kind of laboratory on how these bans affect societies. And one obvious thing in Poland is that the state, while determined to stop abortions, is less focused on what comes next – a child who needs help and support.

The Polish government has some of the most generous family welfare benefits in the region, but it still offers only minimal support to single mothers and parents of disabled children, about the same as some parts of the United States where abortion bans are in place.

“They call themselves pro-life, but they only care about women until they give birth,” said Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, an advocacy group based in Warsaw which opposes the government ban. “There is no systemic support for mothers in Poland, especially mothers of children with disabilities.”

This is one of the reasons why the number of abortions doesn’t seem to have really gone down – abortions have simply been driven underground or out of the country. While legal abortions have fallen to around 1,000 a year, abortion rights campaigners estimate that 150,000 Polish women end a pregnancy each year, despite the ban, either by using abortion pills or by traveling to the stranger.

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 diehard anti-abortion warriors like Father Kancelarczyk concede, has made “no perceptible difference” in the numbers.

Providing food, accommodation or a place in a crèche, on the other hand, can sometimes make a difference, and father Kancelarczyk, who raises funds through donations, proudly says that this help allows him to “save” 40 pregnancies per year. year.

One was that of Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who did not want to release her full name for fear of being stigmatized in her deeply Catholic community.

When she became pregnant with her second child, she said the child’s father and his family shunned her. No bank would lend her money because she didn’t have a job. No one wanted to hire her because she was pregnant. And she was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that she was ‘not employable’.

“The state is completely abandoning single mothers,” she said.

Then one day, as she was sitting on the floor in her small, unfurnished apartment, Father Kancelarczyk, alerted by a friend, called her, encouraged her to keep the baby and offered to help her.

“One day I had nothing,” Beata said. “The next day he arrived with all these things: furniture, clothes, diapers. I could even choose the color of my stroller.

Nine years later, Beata is working as an accountant and her chosen son, Michal, is thriving at school.

For many women, Father Kancelarczyk has proven to be the only safety net – though his charity comes with a mark of polarizing, polarizing Christian fervor in Szczecin.

The red-brick Gothic church of Father Kancelarczyk stands 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 of people leaving his church and clashing with counter-protesters across the street. Before a local gay pride parade, he once called on his followers to “disinfect the streets”.

He receives hate mail almost daily, he says, calling it “the work of Satan”.

Ms. Kacpura, the lawyer who opposes the government ban, says the lack of state support, especially for single mothers, has opened space for people like Father Kancelarczyk to ‘indoctrinate’ women who find themselves in financial and emotional distress.

Under communism childcare was free and most Polish workplaces had facilities on site to encourage mothers to join the workforce. But that system crumbled after 1989, as an emboldened Roman Catholic Church backed the 1993 abortion ban, as it also revived a view of women as mothers and carers in the home.

The nationalist and conservative Law and Justice party, which was elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw an opportunity and adopted one of the most generous child benefit programs in Europe. It was a revolution in Poland’s family policy.

But there is still a lack of childcare facilities, a prerequisite for mothers to be able to work, as well as special support for parents of disabled children. Over the past decade, groups of parents of children with disabilities have twice occupied Poland’s 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 he’ll do his best to bump into her and force a conversation.

He also warns fathers, waving ultrasound images at men looking to leave their pregnant girlfriends. “If men behaved decently, women wouldn’t abort,” he said.

Although hated 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 shortly after learning her unborn baby had Down syndrome. It was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal anomalies, and she was considering an abortion. “I thought my world was falling apart,” she said.

While on duty, Father Kancelarczyk had released a video from his phone with the sound of what he described as a fetal heartbeat.

“It was so emotional,” 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 were going to get through this and offered his support.

After the birth of her son Krzys, Mrs. Niklas gave up her career as an architect to take care of him full time. Krzys, now 9, only secured a place at a school this fall, an example of how government support falls short of meeting their needs.

She now advises expectant parents of disabled children, trying to advise them to keep their babies – but without sugarcoating.

“I never just tell them, ‘It’s going to be fine,’ because it’s going to be difficult,” she said. “But if you accept that your life is different from what you envisioned, you can be very happy.”

“We have these ideas of what our children will be – a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut,” she added. “Krzys taught me love.”

But in all her advice, she says, one thing hardly appears: the ban on abortion.

“It didn’t impact how people make decisions,” she said. “Those who want to have an abortion do so anyway, only 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 at Father Kancelarczyk’s shelter. She was 23 when she got pregnant. She said her boyfriend 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 difficult,” she said of an unlawful dismissal. “It’s about 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 the pregnancy.

Father Kancelarczyk offered her not just free room and board at his shelter, but a lawyer, who brought the former boyfriend to justice. He is currently serving a 10 month sentence and could 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 allowed is seen as good, and what is forbidden as bad.”