SZCZECIN, POLAND – Abortion has been banned in Poland for 29 years, but it has done little to prevent women from accessing the procedure, keeping Reverend Tomas Kancelarczyk a busy man.
A Roman Catholic priest plays an ultrasound of what he describes as a fetus’s heartbeat in his sermons to discourage women from considering abortion. He threatened teenage girls to tell their parents if they had an abortion or not. He was alerting couples while waiting in hospital to have abortions due to fetal abnormalities, which were allowed until the law was tightened last year.
But the father’s most effective tool cancellargic, he admits, may actually be something the state has mostly neglected: helping single mothers by providing them with shelter, supermarket coupons, baby clothes and, if necessary, lawyers to go after violent partners.
Father Kancilarczyk, 54, said during a recent visit to Little Feet House, a shelter he runs in a nearby village for single women, some pregnant, some with children, all struggling with hardship. “There should be 200 or 300 homes like this in Poland. There is a void.”
As strict abortion bans spread in some US states, Poland offers a laboratory, of sorts, for how this ban is spreading in societies. And one thing that is clear in Poland is that the state, if bent on stopping abortions, is less focused on what comes next – the child who needs help and support.
Poland’s government has some of the most generous family welfare benefits in the region, but it still provides minimal support to single mothers and parents of disabled children, just as it does in parts of the United States where abortion bans are enforced.
“They call themselves pro-life, but they only care about the woman until birth,” said Kristina Kacpora, president of the Federation of Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw-based group that opposes the government ban. “There is no systematic support for mothers in Poland, especially mothers of disabled children.”
This is one reason why the number of abortions appears not to be actually declining – abortions have only been pushed underground or out of the country. While legal abortions have fallen to about 1,000 annually, abortion rights activists estimate that 150,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies each year, despite the ban, either by using the abortion pill or by traveling abroad.
Poland’s fertility rate, currently at 1.3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in Europe – half what it was during the communist era, when the country had one of the world’s most liberal abortion systems.
Legal bans, even staunch anti-abortion warriors like Father Kancilargic, made no “notable difference” to the numbers.
On the other hand, providing food, lodging, or a place in childcare, can sometimes make all the difference, and Father Kancilarczyk, who raises money through donations, proudly says this help helps him “save” 40 pregnancies a year.
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One was for Beata, a 36-year-old single mother who did not want to reveal her full name for fear of stigma in her Catholic community.
When she became pregnant with her second child, she said the child’s father and her family had ostracized her. No bank would lend her her money because she had no business. No one wanted to hire her because she was pregnant. It was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that it was “unemployable”.
“The state is completely abandoning single mothers,” she said.
Then one day, as she was sitting on the floor in her small, unfurnished apartment, she was called by Father Kancelarjek, who, alerted by a friend, encouraged her to keep the child and offered to help.
“One day I had nothing,” Beata said. The next day he showed up with all these things: furniture, clothes, diapers. I can even choose the color of my carriage.”
Nine years later, Beata works as an accountant, and the son she chooses to have, Michel, is thriving at school.
For many women, Father Kanslarczyk has turned out to be the only safety net — though his charitable foundation comes with the kind of Christian fervor that polarizes, a division starkly displayed in Szczecin.
The red brick Gothic church spiers of Father Kancilarczyk directly opposite a liberal arts center adorned its windows 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 largest anti-abortion rally as thousands leave his church and face street protesters. Before a local gay pride parade, he once called on devotees to “cleanse the streets.”
He says he receives hate messages almost every day, calling it “the work of the devil.”
Ms Kakpora, an advocate who opposes the government ban, says the lack of state support especially for single mothers has opened the way for people like Father Kancilargic to “indoctrinate” women who find themselves in financial and emotional distress.
Under communism, childcare was free and most Polish workplaces had on-site facilities to encourage mothers to join the work force. But that system collapsed after 1989, as the daring Roman Catholic Church put its shoulder behind the 1993 abortion ban as it revived seeing women as mothers and caregivers in the home.
The nationalist and conservative PiS, elected in 2015 on a pro-family platform, saw an opportunity and passed one of Europe’s most generous child benefit programs. It was a revolution in family politics in Poland.
But she still lacks childcare, a prerequisite for going to work for mothers, 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 a lack of government support, in 2014 and 2018.
When someone calls Father Kanslarkisek about a woman considering an abortion — a “friend’s habit” — he sometimes calls the pregnant woman. When she doesn’t want to talk, he says he’ll bump into her and force a conversation.
He also warns parents, waving ultrasound images in the faces of men looking to leave their pregnant girlfriends. “If men behave properly,” he said, “women will not get abortions.”
While hated by many, he is admired in the religious communities in which he preaches.
Monika Niklas, a 42-year-old mother of two from Szczecin, first attended mass with Father Kanslarczyk shortly after learning that her unborn child had Down syndrome. This was 10 years ago, before the ban included fetal abnormalities, and she was considering an abortion. “I thought my world was collapsing,” she said.
During his service, Father Kancelarjic played a video clip from his phone with the sound of what he described as a fetal heartbeat.
“It was very moving,” Ms. Niklas recalls. “After mass, we went to talk to him and told him about our situation.” He was one of the first people who told her and her husband they were going to make it and gave her support.
After the birth of her son Krzys, Mrs. Niklas gave up her career as an architect to take care of him full time. The Krzys, now 9, secured a place in a school only this fall, one example of how government support has failed to meet their needs.
Now she is advising parents of disabled children who are expecting their children, and trying to advise them to keep their babies – but without sugarcoating them.
“I don’t just say to them, ‘It will be all right,’ she said, ’cause it will be hard.” But if you accept that your life will be different from what you envisioned, you can be very happy.”
“We have these ideas of what our children will be like – a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut,” she added. “The Krzys taught me about love.”
But in all of her advice, she said, there’s one thing that hardly appears: the abortion ban.
“This hasn’t affected how people make decisions,” she said. “Those who want an abortion do it anyway, only abroad.”
Several women here agreed.
Cassia, who also did not want her full name to be used due to the stigma surrounding the case, is one of nine women currently living in Father Kancilargic’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 kicked her out of the house. A friend called an abortion clinic across the border in Germany.
“It’s not that hard,” she said of getting an illegal severance. “It’s a matter of getting a phone number.”
In the end, it was a semi-abortion at the eighth week of her pregnancy that changed Cassia’s mind and convinced her to carry out her pregnancy.
Father Kancilarcic offered her not only a room and a free meal in his shelter, but also a lawyer, who took her ex-boyfriend to court. He is now serving a 10-month prison sentence and may lose custody.
“I feel safe now,” Cassia said.
Father Kancilarczyk says the number of women referred to him because they were considering an abortion did not increase when the ban was tightened in Poland due to fetal abnormalities. But he still supports the ban.
“The law always has a normative effect,” he said. “What is permissible is considered good, and what is forbidden is considered evil.”