One of Europe's strictest abortion laws survived a strenuous challenge Friday when Polish lawmakers failed to override a presidential veto of legislation that would have made abortions more readily available.
The vote was a victory for President Lech Walesa, and it staved off a high-stakes power struggle between the staunchly antiabortion president and the governing coalition, which is led by former Communists who favor easing abortion restrictions.
Walesa, a devout Roman Catholic and father of eight, had said he would not sign the legislation even if the Sejm, the lower house of Parliament, voted to override his veto. Under such a scenario, the president could have been called before a constitutional tribunal and forced to step down.
But the standoff was averted when the Sejm fell 42 votes short of the required two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, with 232 deputies voting against Walesa, 157 for him and 22 abstaining.
"The president welcomes the Parliament's acceptance of his argument that human life should be protected," said Walesa spokesman Leszek Spalinski.
Abortion rights advocates said they would not give up and pledged to push for a nationwide referendum. But because of that long process, the highly explosive subject effectively has been defused until next year, virtually assuring it a prominent role in the presidential election.
"We want to have a public vote on this," said Tomasz Nalecz, spokesman for the Union of Labor, whose parliamentary members voted against Walesa. "Because the presidential veto must be overturned by a two-thirds majority, we are in a situation where decisions are being made by the minority."
The abortion debate has fast become one of the most divisive issues in democratic Poland. More than 90% of the citizens identify themselves as Roman Catholic, but polls show that a majority of citizens support liberalizing abortion rights.
The church's strong antiabortion stance has created a backlash against its political and social moralizing and was viewed as an important factor in the election defeat last year of several right-wing parties that had pushed for the law now in place.
The law, passed early last year with strong church backing, permits abortions only when a woman's health is threatened, when a prosecutor determines the pregnancy resulted from a crime or when the fetus is badly deformed.
Only Ireland and Malta impose greater restrictions among European countries, and Poland is the only former Eastern Bloc country to have reversed the easy availability of abortion under communism.
At its peak, there were about 100,000 registered abortions a year in Poland and hundreds of thousands of unregistered ones. In the first year of the new law, there were fewer than 800 legal abortions, although there are no estimates on the number of women who turned to the gynecological underground or went abroad to terminate pregnancies.
"We are not exactly sure how large the black market is, but there is no doubt the number of abortions has dropped," said Pawel Wisicki of the Polish Federation of Movements for the Protection of Human Life. "The present law has done a lot of good, and it would make no sense to change something that bore such good fruit."
The legislation vetoed by Walesa was written by a group of women legislators from several left-wing parties who had fought unsuccessfully to block the restrictions last year. Their amendments would have eased criteria for abortion to include women experiencing financial difficulties or family hardship.
"This still wouldn't have given women freedom of choice, because someone else would have decided whether her situation was bad enough or not to warrant an abortion," said Wanda Nowicka, who heads the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw group that supports abortion rights.
While the church attacked the proposed changes as too vague and far-reaching, critics of the existing law contended that it discriminates against the poor because wealthier women can go abroad or pay for an illegal abortion in Poland. So-called abortion tours are advertised in Polish newspapers by foreign companies, and even Polish clinics advertise services using easily deciphered euphemisms. "It is demoralizing to have laws that are meant to be broken," said Nalecz of the Union of Labor.
The law does not punish a woman who has an illegal abortion but calls for a two-year prison sentence for the doctor who performs it. Enforcement has been difficult, however, leading critics to charge that the law has done little more than drive up the cost of abortions and force doctors and patients to go underground.
Of the 53 cases of alleged illegal abortions investigated in the law's first year, none resulted in a conviction. A report by the Justice Ministry concluded that the small number of cases could indicate that the new law has caused a huge drop in the number of abortions or, more likely, that illegal abortions are simply not being reported to authorities.