Saturday, July 20, 2024
Poland

How Poland’s Law and Justice failed its pro-life voters on abortion (interview)

MP Bartłomiej Wróblewski (Photo by Piotr Łysakowski – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

In November 2019, there was a clear expectation and request from the leadership of the Law and Justice (PiS) party to put the issue of eugenic abortion to the Constitutional Tribunal again, says PiS MP Bartlomiej Wróblewski. Unfortunately, since the Constitutional Tribunal banned abortions motivated by “prenatal examinations or other medical data [indicating] a high probability of serious and irreversible disability in the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease” in  2020, Mateusz Morawiecki’s government has not carried out the Tribunal’s instructions regarding the state’s constitutional obligations toward women confronted by this type of situation  who need special care.

In the years 2019–2023, MP Bartłomiej Wróblewski was vice chair of the Parlamentary Group for Life and Family. He talked to Łukasz Żygadło for DoRzeczy.pl, the news website of the Polish conservative weekly Do Rzeczy.

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Media reports have emerged showing that Law and Justice politicians are increasingly admitting that the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on abortion was a mistake. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said this, too. What is your take on this?

Bartłomiej Wróblewski: It is psychologically understandable that those directly responsible for the policies of recent years and the electoral campaign are now trying to deflect the responsibility for the outcome of the elections. Additionally, there are ideological divisions surfacing within the [PiS-led] United Right coalition. The protection of life has always been like a thorn in the side for the more liberal wing within PiS. Thus, if the current post-election discussions can move the right more to the center, they are eager to seize the opportunity. At the same time, the liberal media are picking up on such issues to heat up the atmosphere and steer the discussion in the direction they want, hoping for international divisions inside PiS to favor a shift toward its becoming a more pro-EU progressive right.

I myself belong to the conservative-Christian wing of PiS, which is attached to values and ideas. We defend and will continue to defend in politics those values that are most important to us, which are contained in the Polish Constitution, and are essential for the preservation of the Polish national identity. These are issues of sovereignty, the protection of life and the family, the rights of parents to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs, and religious freedom, as well as fostering a framework that allows Polish entrepreneurs to flourish.

The Law and Justice party stood up for unborn children during the 2015 election campaign, and in the years leading up to their election victory, they said that they would strengthen the legal protection of life. It was therefore obvious that we had to do something after winning. This was all the more so when the issue was taken up by pro-life organizations that collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for a series of citizens’ bills. At the time, PiS deputies who were particularly involved in pro-life issues, including Piotr Usciński and myself, suggested that a compromise should be sought and that at least some of the pro-life demands should be implemented.

However, when a citizens’ initiative collapsed in 2016, I proposed that we should put the issue to the Constitutional Tribunal, as had been done in 1996 [after a left-wing, post-communist majority in Parliament had added socio-economic difficulties to Poland’s abortion law as a valid reason for a woman to be allowed to abort her baby, ed.]. So we then prepared our case in a similar way. Remember that abortion on so-called “social grounds” was successfully challenged in 1996, and abortion on eugenic grounds was challenged in 2017, and again – successfully – in 2019.

Was the party leadership consulted regarding the case that was put to the Constitutional Tribunal?

Yes, because we thought it was too important of an issue to act on our own. The 2017 petition’s preparation was preceded by a conversation first with our parliamentary group chairman, Ryszard Terlecki, and then with the party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński. Only once they assented did the preparation of the case begin. Before we started collecting deputies’ signatures, we also got approval from the broader PiS leadership, and information about our initiative was presented at a meeting of the PiS parliamentary group.

Because of its nature, the support for our case was not limited to PiS, however. Our petition was signed by 107 deputies from PiS, Kukiz’15, and independents [out of 460 deputies sitting in the Sejm, ed.]. Finally, we asked the Law and Justice leader about it in the fall of 2017, before the petition was filed with the Constitutional Tribunal.

I am recalling these circumstances because we were overly cautious and held consultations on the matter at every stage. As it had not yet been heard by the constitutional court two years later, the case was discontinued [because of new elections in 2019, as cases put to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal by MPs that have not yet been heard are automatically discontinued when a new Sejm is elected, ed.], and then the situation was different.

What did it look like?

At the time, we as members of the Parliamentary Group for Life and Family had doubts as to whether we should resubmit a petition given that the Constitutional Tribunal had not heard such an important case in two years. There were also accusations from pro-life organizations that our petition had served as an alibi for not taking up the issue in the Sejm, and in particular for not working on the latest citizens’ bill.

But then, at the beginning of the new parliament in November 2019, the PiS leadership expressed a clear expectation that we ought to renew our petition to the Constitutional Tribunal.

The petition was well prepared and the Tribunal acknowledged the unconstitutionality of allowing eugenic abortions. Vice minister [for Family, Labor, and Social Policies] Pawel Wdowik recently said this very nicely at the Law and Justice convention in Katowice, when he pointed out that this ruling restored dignity to the sick and disabled by ending human selection in Poland. And that’s what we should all have been saying, starting from 2020.

Some say that the timing of the Tribunal’s decision was inadequate.

This was the responsibility and decision of the Constitutional Tribunal. From the start I pointed out that, given the importance of the ruling and the risks involved, it would have been wiser for the Constitutional Tribunal to reproduce its 1996/97 modus operandi, in other words to have the case heard by the entire court in a similar time frame as it had been back then, i.e. after a year.

In addition, this would have meant that a larger number of judges elected to the Constitutional Tribunal before [Law and Justice came to power in] 2015 would have taken part in the ruling. This would have in turn limited the potential for accusations and attacks from left-liberal circles.

The Constitutional Tribunal chose a different path, however. Today we hear that the ruling could not have been otherwise. I think so, too, which is why I proposed to submit such a petition. It was based exclusively on constitutional arguments: human dignity (Article 30), the right to life (Article 38), and the prohibition of discrimination against the sick and disabled (Article 32). There were no political, moral, or religious arguments in our petition.

We relied on previous rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal from 1998, 2004, and 2008, as well as some voices expressing Polish legal doctrine, including people such as Andrzej Zoll [the former president of the Constitutional Tribunal in 1993–1997, when the Tribunal ruled against abortion on demand in Poland, ed.] and Marek Safian, who have supported the opposition since 2015.

I have not yet encountered a serious legal polemic against the case we made. Declaring the selection of people unconstitutional was indeed the most likely outcome. Today, almost everyone acknowledges this.

Isn’t it paradoxical that during the three years after the first petition was filed, the government did not prepare for the ruling? That solutions were not prepared to strengthen public acceptance of the Tribunal’s verdict? What’s even more surprising is that, since the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling in 2020, Mateusz Morawiecki’s government has not carried out its instructions regarding the state’s constitutional obligations toward women with difficult pregnancies and in the perinatal period.

They have been burying their heads in the sand for the last six years. There have also been shady moves at the Health Ministry that have undermined the confidence [in the government] felt by Catholic circles, which had been restored only with difficulty thanks to this ruling. As the media reports on this subject claimed, new extra-constitutional grounds for interrupting pregnancies were to be created [as per a project by the Health Ministry to extend to mental issues the legal grounds by which an abortion is allowed in Poland when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s health or life].

Since June, hundreds of thousands of our voters have seen information on this, which had the concrete effect of discouraging them from voting for us. This is one of the reasons behind the exodus of Christian voters, the relatively good result of the [new] Poland Is One [overtly pro-life, conservative] party, and the lack of involvement in the campaign by many of our voters. We could have had all, or almost all, of this group on our side. It is hard to understand why this was ignored.

What kind of positive government action was these supposed to be?

The actions that the Constitutional Tribunal enumerated in its 2020 ruling: more support for mothers in difficult pregnancies, perinatal care, and assistance to women and families in the perinatal period when sick and disabled children are born. Due to the fact that the government did not act, MP Michał Wójcik, as well as our Parliamentary Group for Life and Family, proposed new bills, but they were all blocked. The worst possible strategy was chosen. We did not attract any new voters by acting this way, and many were driven away.

What is your answer to the rumors suggesting that you planned to park pro-life vans near Tribunal President Julia Przyłębska’s apartment and blackmail the Law and Justice leader with the removal of dozens of deputies [from the PiS group]?

Both rumors are fake news. None of this has taken place. It is neither our style, nor are we capable of it. Once again, let me remind you that in 2019 it was the PiS leadership that insisted on resubmitting the petition to the Constitutional Tribunal.

Why, in your opinion, do such anonymous statements appear?

This is not accidental, of course. I think there are two kinds of sources for these rumors: internal and external.

The internal source is part of an effort to deflect responsibility for the government’s actions in recent years, as well as for the campaign. It also relates to those expectations of what the dreamed-of Right of the future should look like: looking as little right-wing as possible, and ready to limit Polish sovereignty and abandon the defense of the civilization of life. There is also the liberal circles’ game, which would prefer PiS to be a Luxembourg- or German-style Christian democratic party. And there is an immediate goal as well: to bring about the disintegration of the [PiS-led] United Right coalition.

I’ll say it for myself, but I think many Law and Justice MPs think the same: We want a conservative Right attached to freedoms. We have stood and will continue to stand on the side of the most important issues, and on the side of sovereignty, national tradition, and Christian values.

It has been argued that you lost many voters because of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, however. How do you respond to this?

It is difficult to judge. The Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling came at the time of the discussion about the [ill-conceived] animal protection bill [which was never voted into law], and at the time of the restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic more than three years ago.

In the eyes of the conservative wing of the Law and Justice Party, what has weakened our base of support is the fact that we have departed from our values. I have just mentioned the disappointment of many Catholic voters, and [former Agriculture] Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski [who had to resign because of his opposition to the animal protection bill that was strongly promoted by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński] has repeatedly pointed out the mistakes made with regard to the Polish countryside.

The Ombudsman for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises has stressed the issues of micro and small Polish companies, including the burden of social security [which was made worse with the introduction of Mateusz Morawiecki’s Polish New Deal fiscal package last year]. In July 2023 we, meaning the Extraordinary Committee on Deregulation, presented a bill designed, among other things, to rebuild our support among this large group of Poles. Unfortunately, it was not taken any further by the Sejm.

The main issues included, to put things simply, overly restrictive Covid policies, the Polish New Deal, the idea of giving up cash [for digital currency], the transfer of part of our sovereignty to the EU, the milestones [for which Morawiecki signed up to obtain recovery funds from the EU, but with no effect] and Fit for 55, a unilateral policy toward Ukraine, the ever-recurring proposals for restrictions on home schooling, a reluctance to provide systemic support to private schools, and pushing – against the wishes of our voters – for changes to the geological and mining law shortly before the elections.

All these issues have one common denominator, which we explained to the Law and Justice leadership after the failure of the animal protection law.

Which one?

The party leadership and government have been too dominated by centrist and sometimes even technocratic voices, while conservative voices have been lacking. They stopped listening to our supporters, and sometimes there was even a temptation to lecture and educate them.

Representing Christian voters cannot be reduced to being seen on the front benches at church services or subsidizing historical monuments, but must find expression in the content of our policies.

This had its consequences in the final years of the Morawiecki government as well as in the campaign. How are technocratic [and apolitical] ministers supposed to understand what right-wing voters expect? How are they supposed to be assertive in the face of the expectations of global or European institutions that are incompatible with the Polish tradition of freedom? If these lessons are not learned, we will face a further exodus of right-wing voters.

 

 

This interview was first published in Polish on the website of the Do Rzeczy weekly in November 2023.