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Confusion And Controversy Over “Eugenic” Abortion in Poland

by Lucy Lee

This Blog Post Started With An Instagram Comment…

Recently, I had an interesting interaction on social media. I saw an Instagram post about telemedicine abortions, which are becoming incredibly accessible across the United States. Beneath the post, someone wrote, "I wish Poland was like that. Our government just took our right to eugenic abortion.” I immediately took a screenshot of the comment and sent it to Aimee Murphy of Rehumanize International to ask if she had heard anything about this news. “Eugenic abortion?!,” I thought, “shouldn’t everyone, even pro-choice advocates, at least be against that?”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, eugenics is defined as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population's genetic composition.” I hope most of us would agree that eugenics, as it enacts systematic discrimination and reproductive violence, is a bad thing.

So, where is the confusion? Why might someone be upset by Poland’s ban on eugenic abortions? Let’s dive into this case a little bit.

The Case

First of all, I admit that I don’t know much about Poland or how court cases work there. After reading roughly fifteen articles, I was still unsure of the name of this case. Still, the following is a summary of what I was able to discover.

The highest court in Poland ruled on October 22 that a law permitting abortion when “prenatal examinations or other medical data indicate a high probability of serious and irreversible disability of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening illness” is unconstitutional. Poland will now only allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the health of a pregnant person is at risk.

To arrive at this decision, the court argued that terminating a pregnancy due to a fetus’ “defects” amounted to eugenics; what Monika Scislowska with the Associated Press defines as “a 19th century notion of genetic selection that was later applied by the Nazis in their pseudo-scientific experiments.” The court agreed with the plaintiffs that deciding whether a pre-born child may live based on that child’s health conditions is a form of discrimination. Because this type of discrimination would already be illegal if applied to any human outside of the womb, they argued that it should be illegal when applied also to the pre-born. To justify its decision, the court stated that “there can be no protection of the dignity of an individual without the protection of life.” This decision will most likely reduce the number of abortions in Poland, where figures show that around 98% of the 1,110 legal abortions enacted in Poland in 2019 were performed because of fetal abnormalities.

Of course, when abortion is made illegal it does not disappear altogether. To truly affirm life at all stages, one must not simply care for pre-born humans but also for people outside of the womb; mothers and their children, for example. Thankfully, the ruling party in Poland plans to soon propose new legislation with the goal of better supporting women, along with the children who will be born as a result of this ruling.

Confusion And Controversy

While the reasons provided to justify this ruling are life-affirming, and it’s excellent to see that new legislation to help mothers of disabled children is in the works, the ruling certainly did not come without disagreement. In addition to the aforementioned Instagram comment, lawmakers and protesters took to social media and the streets to express their dissent.

One of the main arguments against this ruling has to do with the implications of language. The word “eugenic” — eugenika in Polish — is a serious word implying not only discrimination but racism, hatred, oppression and violence. From what I’ve seen online, those who are against this ruling don’t just believe in a right to abortion access. They are upset that the court employed the word “eugenic” to justify its decision. Those who oppose the ruling don't want to be seen as hating disabled people; if they support abortion for pre-born children with disabilities, they do not see it as a form of eugenics. Yet we who adhere to a consistent life ethic believe that all human beings share equal dignity, and that we are all entitled to the right to life. Such an ethic includes individuals who have so-called “abnormalities” or disabilities. Specifically, many of my friends who are living with disabilities have expressed that they would not have wanted to die in the womb. Many would tell you that their lives are worth living, even when disability makes life difficult.

I once heard that society exacerbates disability when we as communities refuse to put in the work to make our world more accessible. This is to say it is not a disabled person’s fault if they can’t navigate a society that’s not designed for them. We all have unique gifts and abilities, and when someone’s body doesn’t perform in the same way as the majority in society, that person shouldn’t be punished for the things they cannot do. Instead, we should work to make our spaces more accessible to those people so that they can thrive and show us their unique gifts and abilities. We are all important. When people and institutions with the means to kill people they deem “inferior” commit violence against those people, not only do we as a society have blood on our hands, but we also lose the opportunity to experience the unique gifts, talents and abilities with which those we kill could have graced our world.

The Words We Use

While researching the Polish case and thinking about protesters’ discontent regarding the word “eugenic,” I began to consider language and how it can cause great confusion and controversy. Abortion is such a complex issue here in the United States, and I personally believe a lot of its complexity exists because of the language we use to talk about it.

First of all, I think abortion has become far too political. It’s a human rights issue. I love Rehumanize International’s claim that “politics kills” and their refusal to settle for any political party as long as it continues to deny anyone their right to life.

Second, abortion is deeply personal and painful. Therefore, when we talk about this issue we must always do so with grace, patience and understanding. Statistically, one in four women in the United States will have an elective abortion at some point in her life. As such, you most certainly know someone who has made that difficult decision (or was coerced into it). While I believe abortion is wrong, I implore anyone reading this article to discuss the issue with kindness. You never know who has had an abortion. They may be struggling with regret, sadness or guilt. Others may have never had an abortion but suffered a miscarriage, another painful experience that should not be taken lightly.