For Churches, Abortion Politics Is a Double-Edged Sword

In the ensuing public uproar, support for the church collapsed.

“It basically goes from being one of the most trusted public institutions to not only losing support in the faith world, but being unable to counter referendums on abortion and on gay marriage,” Grzymala-Busse said. “It’s now a political non-presence in Ireland because the scale of the treachery of the betrayal was so huge.”

In Poland, the church is also deeply intertwined with the state, in part because it helped broker the country’s transition to democracy after the fall of Communism, leading many to view it as a guardian of national identity as well as faith.

But because of a period of Communist rule, the church has played that central role in Polish politics only in recent decades. So while Poland has also seen scandals related to sexual abuse in the church, they have been smaller in scope than those in Ireland and treated more as isolated tragedies than a systemic catastrophe, Grzymala-Busse said.

But while the church did not suffer the same kind of reputational collapse that it did in Ireland, it did have to contend with the expectations of Polish society, particularly Polish women. They had widespread access to abortion during Communism, and, many were angered by a compromise that saw the country outlaw abortion as the price of the church’s backing for its transition to democracy.

So in 2016, when a petition from a conservative think tank forced the Polish Parliament to take up a law that would have narrowed the country’s already restrictive abortion ban even further, mass protests ensued, and the bill failed.

That put the governing Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, in a bind.

The party’s leadership had cast itself as the link between the Catholic Church, the Polish state, and Polish national identity. Abandoning the abortion restrictions risked jeopardizing that public role and alienating the party’s political base, particularly older Catholic conservatives in rural areas.

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