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Abortion Issue Spawns Lively Debate In Poland - Again

WARSAW, Mar 11 (RFE/RL) - In Poland, the Roman Catholic tradition, the Communist past, and the modern needs of women have breathed new life into an old debate: How easy should it be to get an abortion?

Under Polish communism, abortion on demand was so routine that, some political leaders say, it amounted to just another method of contraception.

The post-communist government of Poland tightened the law to forbid abortion under most circumstances, except when the life of the mother was threatened. Former President Lech Walesa, a Roman Catholic believer, resolutely vetoed an earlier bid by the Sejm (parliament) to relax the abortion law.

Now, the Sejm has taken up the matter again. It was debated March 1, and is due to be revisited Wednesday (Mar 13). And Walesa's successor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, says he supports liberalizing the law.

It's not a mere question of whether Polish women should have free or restricted access to abortion. Many advocates say they favor revising the law because the current regulations have become a joke.

Various newspapers and broadcasters have conducted phone surveys and recorded doctors' voices openly offering abortions for the equivalent in Zloty of between 160-and-480 U.S. dollars each. Leading newspapers offer full pages of classified ads offering abortions in thinly veiled euphemisms. Other advertisements offer "tourist trips" to Lvov in Ukraine or to the Czech Republic "to see a gynecologist there."

So abortion remains available to Polish women. Only the price has gone up, which means that the restrictions apply mainly to the poor. The police report that four-to-five newborns a week, on average, are found in garbage disposals and refuse dumps. Others are abandoned on the doorsteps of hospitals.

Different pressures are working on Poland's new President Kwasniewski. His "Democratic Left Alliance" bears the responsibility of delivering on presidential campaign promises that the abortion law would be amended. On the other hand, it is widely understood in Warsaw that Kwasniewski would like to visit the Vatican soon. His too enthusiastic support of a liberalized abortion law could create difficulties in arranging a meeting with the Pope. If, however, the Sejm amended the law, Kwasniewsky could sign it and lay the responsibility on the parliament instead of on himself.

The bill before the Sejm is entitled: "Bill on family planning, protection of the human fetus and the conditions which would allow for an abortion, and the necessary changes in the penal code." It would permit abortions of fetuses in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It would also offer inducements to buy contraceptive devices.

In the March 1 parliamentary debate, a variety of opinions emerged. The "Democratic Left Alliance" and the "Labor Union" party supported the changes. The "Peasant Party," the "Confederation for Independent Poland," and the former presidential party, the "BBWR," opposed them. Other parliamentary groupings are split.

Sejm Deputy Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, a member of the "Labor Union" party and one of the liberalization bill's authors, called the existing law unjust, because of its disproportionate impact on the poor. She contended that the bill was, as she put it, "criminogenic," because it encouraged what she called "abortion tourism" and a "gynecological underground."

Jaruga-Nowacka declared that her party's support for the legal change did not make them - in her words - "enemies of conceived life." Supporters simply were recognizing "social reality," she said.

"Peasant" Party Deputy Jan Komornicki worried that the change would permit an abortion in virtually every case. He called for further debate. A deputy for the "Confederation for Independent Poland," Krzysztof Krol, urged that the law, if passed, be delayed in taking effect, because of early parliamentary elections. Deputy Stanislaw Kowolik of the "BBWR" protested that even debating what he called "the human right to life (is) contrary to common sense and logic." Deputy Andrzej Wielowieyski of the "Freedom Union" party urged that any changes in the law seek to respect both the life of the child and the decision of the mother.