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Natalia Dueholm Natalia Dueholm

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Polish conscience tested: the case of Professor Chazan

Natalia Dueholm Natalia Dueholm
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Dr. Bogdan Chazan came under fire last month when he refused to perform an abortion on a deformed baby who had been conceived in vitro.

WARSAW, Poland -- The most recent case in Poland’s abortion wars will test the country’s conscience.

The case centers around Professor Bogdan Chazan, one of Poland’s top doctors and director of the Holy Family Hospital in Warsaw (Szpital im. Świętej Rodziny).  Chazan came under fire last month when he refused to perform an abortion on a deformed baby who had been conceived in vitro in a fertility clinic.  Instead of an abortion, Chazan offered medical advice for the mother, hospital care before, during, and after the pregnancy, and perinatal hospice care for the child.  

Although Polish law permits abortion of sick babies until viability, it does not create the right to an abortion. It merely decriminalizes abortion for the doctor and the mother.  This particular pregnancy did not pose a danger to the woman’s health. Also, according to Polish law, any physician can invoke the country’s conscience clause, which ensures that no doctor or medical professional will ever be required to perform, or participate in, an abortion.  Nonetheless, Chazan’s hospital was fined 70,000 zloty (approximately $23,000) for his refusal.

Government officials justified the fine by claiming that Chazan had not used the conscience clause properly. Namely, they claimed that he was required to give the patient the name of an abortionist.

However, as the legal organization Ordo Iuris Institute pointed out, forcing Chazan to do this violates his constitutional right to the freedom of conscience. That is why the law used to fine Chazan was being challenged in the Constitutional Tribunal by the National Board of Medical Doctors.  This challenge was initiated even before Chazan’s case.  According to Ordo Iuris Institute, requiring a doctor to refer women to abortionists is unconstitutional because it destroys the purpose of the conscience clause by forcing unwilling doctors to indirectly participate in abortions.

Refusal to participate in certain procedures on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions is a constitutionally protected right in Poland, and was recognized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2010. In Poland, as in the United States, the Constitution trumps legal statutes.  Therefore, Chazan’s actions were well within his constitutional rights.  Lawyer and professor Ireneusz Wołoszczuk confirmed that Chazan hadn’t broken any law, and called the attacks and fine “scandalous.” 

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Indeed, Chazan seems to be the victim of a “sting” by those who would love to challenge Poland’s strict abortion laws in the European Human Rights Court.  Chazan is a well-known pro-life icon, and no Polish woman would have gone to him for an abortion unless she had been specifically directed by someone trying to discredit the doctor.  Additionally, although there is no official list of abortionists, it is hardly top-secret information for those who seek it.

Furthermore, because of Chazan’s actions, his hospital has been a subject to several government inspections.  In fact, the government’s four inspections have violated the law, which allows only one at a time.  The inspections are odd given the hospital’s outstanding reputation.  Pregnant women throughout Warsaw want to give birth there, and the number of deliveries has tripled since Chazan took over.  Further, its statistics for infant and maternal health are the envy of Polish doctors. The hospital’s perinatal mortality rate, for example, is twice as low as the national average. 

Chazan’s unwavering moral convictions have caused a fury in the pro-abortion media. Numerous politicians, mostly post-communist and staunchly anti-clerical, have joined the attack. One of them is Member of Parliament Wanda Nowicka, former head of a pro-abortion group. Her organization has received funds from Ipas, which distributes abortion equipment all over the world, and the pharmaceutical company Gedeon Richter, a birth control producer.  Twelve years ago Nowicka was involved in a similar attack on Chazan that cost the doctor his position as a government consultant and director of a gynecological department at the Institute of Mother and Child (Instytut Matki i Dziecka) in Warsaw.

Despite claims by Chazan’s feminist critics, such as Nowicka, he is known as a champion of women’s health. He leads the Polish branch of MaterCare International, a privately-funded organization that helps women and children in Kenya, Haiti, and Ghana. 

Fortunately, Professor Chazan is not standing alone in his defense. There is support among lawyers and doctors. The National Board of Medical Doctors supports the conscience clause.  Moreover, so far 60,000 people have signed a letter in his defense. In addition, a large crowd appeared in front of the hospital to support the beleaguered doctor. Among them were former patients, such as Karolina Miszkurka, whose child was diagnosed with genetic abnormalities.  Furthermore, there is an initiative in Poland to help pay the fine.

In any case, Chazan will appeal the $23,000 fine.  He argues that it will eat into funds for medical supplies, and that patients will suffer. Chazan called the fine a “ransom” for the life of the baby he did not abort.  This fight goes beyond saving this one particular life. It will have implications for other doctors and for the acceptance of eugenic thinking.

Polish Doctors and Heroes

The eugenics ideology that emerged in the 19th century was never very popular in Catholic Poland.  Even when it infected international academia in the 1920s and 1930s, it only became widespread in Poland after the 1939 Nazi invasion. During the German occupation, eugenics was legally practiced by doctors in concentration camps.  They simply followed the Third Reich’s eugenic laws, and many were not bothered by their consciences. Fortunately, several Polish medical professionals bravely stood up for their beliefs. 

For example, psychiatrist Karol Mikulski committed suicide when the Nazis demanded he provide a list of the incurable patients in his hospital.  Mikulski knew that the Nazis planned to kill the patients on this list. Another heroic example was Stanisława Leszczyńska, a midwife and prisoner who helped women give birth in Auschwitz.  She refused to kill any unborn child, defying the orders of the infamous Nazi abortionist Doctor Mengele. Leszczyńska explained that children cannot be killed under any circumstances.  Another Polish Auschwitz prisoner, Doctor Irena Konieczna, refused to follow Nazi law when she was ordered to “terminate the pregnancy” of each Jewish woman in the camp.

Unlike Professor Chazan, Konieczna was not punished for her refusal to comply with Nazi regulations.  It is unfortunate that a doctor living under the Nazi occupation had more freedom of conscience than her counterpart in 21st century “free” Poland. 



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