[Madeleine Kearns is a staff writer for National Review. The following article appears in the January 25, 2021, print edition of the magazine. Copyright 2021 by National Review. Reprinted by permission.]
Since Poland’s constitutional court outlawed eugenic abortion in October, churches have been vandalized and tens of thousands have flouted social-distancing rules to attend protests. Liberal journalists in Europe and North America have been quick to complain about the “shock and cruelty” inflicted on Polish women by the Law and Justice Party, which, as one Guardian editorial alleged, had acted at the behest of the “most influential Catholic church in Europe.” As in the United States, the stuff of memes and feminist fiction—that old, white, male Jesus freaks are condemning women to reproductive slavery—has inexhaustible virality, the kind capable of preventing serious debate from ever occurring.
Though the Catholic Church in Poland is no stranger to opposition, this brazen ferocity is new in one sense. “Even the Communists didn’t disrupt our Masses,” explains one Pole who grew up in the 1950s under Soviet rule. He is referring to the young women who storm into parishes at prayer and demand “unlimited abortions.” Draped in Handmaid’s Tale–inspired hoods, they brandish posters that depict a red lightning bolt against a black silhouette of a woman. Older Polish Catholics find the activists’ signage particularly unnerving because it resembles the double lightning bolt used by the Nazis, and its colors recall those of Soviet symbols. The young possess no such memories, while the history they inherit is too often selective.
Take, for instance, the New York Times’ report that the banning of eugenic abortion signaled the “hijacking [of] Poland’s judiciary” and a “chipping away at the hard-won freedoms of the post-communist era.” This is odd, to say the least. Even the quickest glance at world history would reveal that permissive abortion laws are a legacy not of post-Communist free societies but of communism. Lenin introduced abortion on demand in 1920. (It was only after abortions in the Soviet Union began to outnumber live births that Stalin reversed this policy, from the mid 1930s to the 1950s.) Cuba decriminalized abortion under Castro. Vietnam has had abortion on demand since the 1960s. The Chinese Communist Party coerced abortions through its one-child policy, which spurred a mass gendercide of unborn girls. Now the CCP’s primary targets are Uyghur women. In June the Associated Press alerted the world to the grave humanrights abuses against Muslim minorities in China, including forced abortions, sterilizations, and family detention camps where pregnant women have reportedly been beaten and kicked in the stomach.
In Poland, abortion for “social reasons” (i.e., any reason) was not introduced until 1956, but the eugenic element began earlier, under the Nazis, who made it a serious offense to abort the offspring of “Aryan” women and encouraged abortions of the deformed, the disabled, Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. These flagrantly discriminatory policies applied to individuals outside as well as inside the womb. As early as 1939, Hitler implemented the “T4 program” in Germany, which mandated the “involuntary euthanasia” of those deemed to have “a life unworthy of life.” The disabled were rounded up and carted away from their families, to be starved, gassed, or injected with poison in “mercy killings.” Some brave doctors, along with the Catholic Church, openly protested. The bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, made it clear that it was the duty of all Christians to oppose the taking of innocent human life, even if that meant making the ultimate sacrifice themselves.
When Pope Francis compared eugenic abortion in the 21st century to Nazi atrocities, the atheist biologist Richard Dawkins protested, “Abortion to avoid birth defects is not about eugenics. It’s about the avoidance of individual human suffering.” The moral philosopher Peter Singer has extended the same logic to justify selective infanticide for the disabled, since their condition can pose a “threat to the happiness of the parents, and any other children they may have.” The Nazis saw the disabled as a threat to economic productivity and racial purity, whereas Dawkins and Singer see them as a potential threat to personal and familial happiness. Yet they arrive at the same disturbing conclusion: The disabled, owing to the difficulties they and others allegedly endure because of their existence, are inferior, hence disposable.
The most powerful voices against abortion for “defects” are not clergymen but the disabled and those who care for them. On October 19, the High Court of England and Wales agreed to hear a challenge to the United Kingdom’s abortion law, which permits abortion at any time up to birth if there is “a substantial risk” of any disability. The challenge is being led by Heidi Crowter, a 25-year-old with Down syndrome. Appearing on a news show with her mother, Crowter told the interviewer that she found the disparity in treatment “deeply offensive.” When asked what she thought about the argument that it is the right of women to make the choice, Heidi’s mom replied, “That really isn’t the issue that we’re here for today. It is about the discrimination.”
In Britain, a baby can be killed right up to the point of delivery, even for conditions as manageable as Down syndrome, club foot, or cleft lip. In 2013 a parliamentary inquiry found that most people representing the interests of the disabled thought that the policy contravened the spirit of anti-discrimination law. Sally Phillips, an English actress, comedian, mother to a son with Down syndrome, and campaigner with the disability-rights charity Don’t Screen Us Out, has said, “Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome, the different right to life is beginning to look not just dated but barbaric.”
Polling consistently suggests that most people remain opposed to late-term abortions. Ultrasound technology has made the humanity of the unborn more difficult to deny the further one gets into the pregnancy. Since most disability testing cannot be confirmed until, at the earliest, the second trimester, this raises a question: not “Should the state permit abortion?” but, more immediately, “Should the state permit the abortion of a baby because it is disabled?” The answer has consequences that go well beyond any individual. If those with disabilities are targeted and killed before birth, the relationship to society of the disabled who have already been born is also undermined. With a diminished right to life, the very existence of the disabled becomes suspect. The medical profession’s ethical standards are infected with eugenicist tendencies (whereby abortion for disability becomes a “best practice”), and mothers and families are pressured to devalue the worth of their child upon discovering that he or she has a disability.
Even proponents of legal abortion will admit that it is damaging for a mother to be encouraged to choose the death of her disabled unborn child. The cover story of the November 2020 issue of The Atlantic, written by Sarah Zhang, brought this point home, albeit indirectly. In her heavily reported piece, Zhang explored how prenatal testing for defects means that “‘choice’ can feel like a burden.” She also noted that “each choice”—whether to test for disability, whether to abort or to keep the child— “puts you behind one demarcating line or another.” The result is that “having a baby with the disease is no longer a simple misfortune because nothing could have been done.” Instead, “it can be seen . . . as a failure of personal responsibility.” When given a diagnosis of disability, parents—who in the face of this news typically feel overwhelmed, disappointed, scared, confused, and ambivalent—look to doctors for guidance. But what happens when that guidance becomes skewed heavily in favor of abortion? The numbers speak for themselves. Last year, 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland (1,074 of 1,110) were carried out for disability. Across Europe, prenatal testing means that people with Down syndrome are heading for extinction.
Moreover, there is a subtle but significant difference between the moral reasoning required to justify abortion for an unwanted baby and that used to justify abortion for a disabled baby. With an unwanted pregnancy, the personhood of the unborn individual is denied not because of but in spite of him. But in choosing abortion after being acquainted with a defining aspect of your child’s biology, the motivation is not “I don’t want a baby” but rather “I don’t want this baby.” Similarly, where communism debases human life equally, fascism establishes a tyrannical hierarchy of worth. It’s understandable that many Poles, having suffered the effects of both within living memory, want neither.
Since the 1990s, Poland’s struggle to protect democratic principles has been made all the more difficult by the lingering, shape-shifting influence of leftist ideology. In 1993, a compromise was struck in which the permissive abortion laws of the Soviets were scrapped but exceptions were retained for fetal defects, risks to the woman’s health, and incest or rape. Finally, after a decades-long political struggle, the Constitutional Tribunal intervened last October, ruling that abortion for disability does indeed violate the Polish constitution, which guarantees equal dignity under the law. The court also required greater state assistance for disabled people and their families.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II, “the Polish pope,” spoke on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of the United Nations’ “Declaration of the Rights of the Disabled.” Addressing an audience of disabled people and their families in St. Peter’s Square, he said that their presence reaffirmed “that disability is not only a need, but also and above all a stimulus and a plea,” “a challenge to individual and collective selfishness,” “an invitation to ever new forms of brotherhood,” and a questioning of “those conceptions of life that are solely concerned with satisfaction, appearances, speed, and efficiency.”
As Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II had grown up under both Nazi and Soviet control and played a critical role in the Solidarity movement, with which the Polish Catholic Church worked tirelessly to secure basic democratic freedoms for all. He understood that the case against aborting the unwanted and the disabled was not about imposing Christian morality on others, but rather about offering a humane vision of universal rights and protections. He understood that the public defense of the right to life of the vulnerable would, to be effective, have to come from a nonpartisan laity acting in solidarity with all people of good will.
Leftist memes and sound bites about choice and “compassion” look shriveled and embarrassing when met with the kind and courageous advocacy of Heidi Crowter and her family. As for the eugenicists, their chilling arrogance can’t help but slip in with the breeze. “If no one with Down syndrome had ever existed or ever would exist—is that a terrible thing? I don’t know,” Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor, said to The Atlantic. Why not ask this instead: If no one had ever become a eugenicist or ever would, would that be a terrible thing?