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Conceived in Sin by A. Koraszewski

Conceived in Sin

by A. Koraszewski

excerpt from a Polish book published by SCHOLAR, Warszawa, 1996; here re-printed in English with permission of the author.

This book is about love, physical love between a man and a woman, the natural place of desire for one another and about the obsessions of the creators of moral laws.

Love your neighbour (Chapter 5)

The discussion about abortion now taking place in Poland and elsewhere appears to consist of a clash between different approaches to the love of one’s neighbour, different ethics, different ways of understanding of personal responsibility.

What strikes one in the discussion is that no voices are raised approving of abortion. Probably all those taking part in the discussion agree, that surgical abortion is wrong. Some see the wrong as premeditated murder, carried out for the sake of convenience or profit. Some think that in some cases abortion is a lesser evil; both parties agree that as a method of family planning abortion is a social evil.

It is obvious that the agreement that abortion is an evil does not bring the protagonists any closer together. The disagreement appears to be not about abortion itself, or about a search for a workable method of limiting a social evil. It is a clash of ideologies.

All my life I have been told that love of one’s neighbour is a key idea of our civilisation. When I compared christianity with judaism, islam hinduism or buddhism I thought that the uniqueness of christianity lies in that very idea of love of one’s neighbour, which goes beyond the clan, nation, even religion. My enemy is still my neighbour.

I have always understood that the command to love one’s neighbour is a command to love another human being, whether it is a member of one’s family, a friend, a countryman, a christian, or a stranger. This interpretation is given to us by the story of the Good Samaritan, or by the words of Jesus quoted in the gospel of St. Matthew.

It may be added that nowhere in the Old Testament are we commanded by God to hate our enemies. But there is no doubt that the New Testament clarifies the meaning of neighbour.

I was under the impression that the biblical command “do not kill” is universal. Killing is always a sin, although in some circumstances, defined in law as self defence, the sin is obviously forgiven.

Those who support a change in the law which allows abortion often refer to the command to love one’s neighbour. The interpretation of this command is fundamental to the discussion. In the same way the definition of who is one’s neighbour is also fundamental. Is sperm or a fertilised human egg already a “neighbour”, or only a potential neighbour? Does the foetus become a “neighbour” after six months, or only after the birth of a live child?

I would maintain that the dispute is not about abortion ( i.e. a surgical termination of pregnancy), but about family planning, about all manner of preventing conception or early termination of pregnancy by medical means.

The Catholic Church only accepts the so called “natural family planning” – the very uncertain calendar method, thermal method or sexual abstinence. As a result, according to information which I obtained from gynaecologists, practising Catholic women, who act according to the advice of their confessors, undergo abortion more often than those Catholics who disregard this Church teaching or non-catholics. I have been keeping an eye on this for thirty years. I ask practising Catholic women how they approach the problem of contraception in the confessional. Most of them say that they look for a “suitable” confessor. Some have ceased going to confession for that very reason. In a few cases the answer given was “ I don’t confess it, this is my own affair.”

One can only direct such questions to women of the same social sphere, who will not feel threatened by such questions. But the change in the character of a Polish family clearly shows, that such attitudes exist throughout society. At present the usual family in Poland has two or three children. As a women during her fertile years can give birth to up to twenty children, the conclusion is obvious: over ninety percent of women in Poland plan their family. What is more, the great majority does not use “natural” methods. This does not mean that this majority uses contraception. Before 1989 Poland was in the forefront in the number of abortions. Only 26 percent of people use modern contraceptives. Access to them has always been limited, and now, under pressures from the Church, it has become even worse. In 1992 the Health Ministry cut off subsidies for contraceptives and many of them were outlawed. (Attempts to reinstate subsidies for contraceptives have been strongly opposed by politicians and political parties which counted on Church support.) The cost of contraceptives went up dramatically, which means that many families cannot afford them. In many pharmacies, especially in small towns and in villages contraceptives are not sold at all.

In the opinion of people who support the right to abortion the very high numbers of abortions in Poland was caused first of all by lack sexual education, lack of contraceptives, drink and general irresponsibility. In my view these are not the only reasons. The scourge of abortion is partly caused by double standards of morality. The Church, while teaching the moral norms, slows down the spread of efficient contraceptives and many of the faithful accept the Church’s teaching, but only until the moment of an unplanned pregnancy. It could well be that ,without wishing to do so, the Church is partly responsible for the fact that in Poland abortion is used as a method of family planning, instead of being used exclusively in extreme circumstances, in which it is necessary to save the life of the mother, to remove a damaged foetus or to find a solution to exceptional social situations, for example pregnancy as a result of rape. (From the moment the law limiting abortion was brought in, official statistics showed a sharp decline in the number of abortions. But the use of contraceptives did not rise, neither did the number of births. So there must have been either a great rise in sexual abstinence, or surgical abortion has become part of the black economy).

For nearly all women abortion is a dramatic experience. Gynaecologists and psychiatrists who work in this sphere know this very well. Perhaps sometimes abortion is undertaken for selfish reasons. I don’t know Polish statistics about what motivates women to undergo abortion, perhaps they do not exist. In other countries such research is carried out. Decisions about abortion are generally in answer to the question: “Will I be able to give my child a home, a normal family, an education”?

My mother had an abortion during the occupation. My father was an officer in the Home Army. The probability that the whole family would survive was not great. My mother decided it would be irresponsible to bring another person to life in such circumstances. (After a violent exchange with her confessor she stopped going to confession. I suspect that my religious indifference and my interest in the problems of family planning is partly an echo of those far-off days). My friend’s sister became pregnant and doctors found she carried quadruplets. Because of her state of health, they were convinced that she would not be able to carry them to full term and all four foetuses would die. Thanks to modern medical knowledge it was possible to remove three of them and the fourth one was able to be born. Was it three murders, or was one life saved?

We can easily reconstruct the questions posed nowadays when a person decides to have a child. As a rule they are not concerned only with personal comfort. The potential parents - and in the case of irresponsible men – the potential mothers, face the question what sort of life they can offer to their child.

Abortion is a very bad method of family planning. An even worse method of regulating populations are starvation, destitution, disease and war. Those “natural” methods of population control have been present from time immemorial. Reproduction is a physiological function, similar to eating and excreting. Here many readers may be shocked. But it may be worth remembering that consuming God-given food is also a sacrament, and process of digestion is a wonder of nature no less than the beginning of new life.

Nature controls population in a cruel way. It gives creatures a generous capacity to procreate, taking for granted that only a small proportion of those which are conceived and born will reach adulthood and ensure the continuation of the species. The higher the consciousness, the greater the rebellion against uncontrolled procreation envisaged by nature. Mother bird who loses its brood suffers, so does a bitch losing its puppy. The fate of Niobe is a tragedy.

In the years between sexual maturity and menopause a woman may be the cause of many deaths and much suffering. Niobe had seven sons and seven daughters. Our grandmothers brought into the world thirteen or fourteen children, died young, and before their death often witnessed the death of their children. A woman even if she never sat by the bed of her dying child, looks differently on the decision of brings a new life into the world than does someone who only approaches the question theoretically. I am afraid we must look on the problem of abortion world-wide, from the perspective of Africa, India, Mexico, Iran, and also Poland. Poland is still a country which is fairly prosperous, with reasonable population density – so far. I have studied what happened in Mexico in the last forty years. A violent demographic explosion can, in only a few decades, change a country with a reasonable population density into one resembling Mexico or India. According to a report published in March 1993 by the Demographic Institute PAN, by 2010 the population of Poland will reach 42 million. We do not know of course to what extent such prognosis will prove to be correct, or to what extent this population growth will be matched by the growth resources.

Since this is a discussion on ethics, the question must be asked if we are opposed to family planning by modern medical means not only in Poland, but also in Ethiopia and Somalia. Do we take into account in such discussion the picture of a woman with a child in her arms who is dying of starvation? Is not the value of human life diminished when a sperm is seen as equally valuable?

South Korea is equal in area to one third of Poland. That small piece of land is inhabited by forty two million people. Political economy of that country is strictly tied to a drastic birth control programme. So called “barbaric” pressures on society has now resulted in children born to life, instead of being born to a quick and horrible death. Abortion, financial rewards for sterilisation, contraceptives, all those are seen as morally valid so that people no longer die in gutters. Is this a criminal policy?

In Brazil, where the government cannot manage to bring about social reform or to propagate a policy of family planning there is a “plague” of thousands of abandoned children. Those children live in rubbish dumps, they steal and murder. The citizens organise special squads which hunt those child gangs and shoot them like vermin. Public opinion research has shown that a large part of Brazilian society approves those methods, stating that this “plague” must be controlled in some way.

The Shah of Iran thought, that for economic reforms to be workable they must be accompanied by family planning . In the sixties and seventies he organised a widespread network of medical units, which gave out information and popularised modern contraception methods. This was violently opposed by Muslim clergy. As soon as the Shah was deposed, the network was closed down and a campaign began with the motto: “Multiply the mouths which will repeat - There is one God and his name is Allah”. As a result birth-rate in Iran reached an outstanding level. The population rose from 38 million in 1979 to 59,7 million in 1995, and that in spite of the 8 years of destructive war against Iraq. In 1995 one third of Iranian population was under sixteen, nearly a half under twenty five. According to information given in August 1995 by the Minister of Health, Reza Marandi , unless a miracle happens the number of inhabitants will be doubled during the next 25 years. Such a miracle , according to the minister, could only happen if the Iranian clergy decide to join an active campaign to popularise contraception. In 1994 less than a third of school age children attended school. In 1992 twelve million adult Iranians were unemployed or subsisted on casual work. At the beginning of the nineties the Iranian government quietly changed its policies and began to rebuild the network of birth control clinics. In 1991 16 million dollars was set aside for spreading information on contraception. Iran has recently approached the World Bank for financial help towards modern family planning. As recently as 1992 the rate of population growth in Iran was 3.3%, which meant two million per annum. It took this catastrophic population explosion for the Muslim fundamentalists to agree to back down, but they demanded that the new policies should be introduced quietly, as “there can be no change to the universal ethical rules”. In August 1995 a conference on the problem of population growth was organised in Teheran. The government clearly stated that the country was on the brink of demographic catastrophe, which can only be avoided by a united effort. There is little probability that such united action will take place.

I am terrified by the present anti-abortion frenzy. It is clear this is a struggle not to limit the number of surgical abortions, but a struggle against modern family planning. I have the impression that those attitudes contain a readiness of writing off a greater evil in the name of “principle”. I am afraid that this principle of defence of life conceived, or even one not yet conceived, may be a principle of condoning of suffering. What should also be considered in the dispute about family planning is the example of Bangladesh and Ethiopia, of American slums, in which newly born black children are more likely to end up in prison than in High school , of children of alcoholic fathers in Poland, who very often adopt the life style of their fathers. It is also worth while to remember the example of Romanian orphanages. One of the participants in the discussion taking place in Poland wrote that the reason for the terrible fate of those children was not prohibition of abortion (rather lack of means of contraception. A.K.), “but that which was the cause of misery in all the Communist countries, that is Communism”. But Communism was not the only cause of misery in the world. The experience of Communism may easily mislead people on that score. Everywhere where the rate of population growth outstrips the rate of economic growth, the point is soon reached when life of an individual becomes cheap and no-one pays attention to the misery of others. Love of one’s neighbour begins to refer only to close family members.

The problem of abortion is also discussed in the West. It is noticeable that Protestant churches express their opinions calmly. They adopt a firm position against abortion as a means of family planning,, but they have accepted contraception since the thirties. Protestantism has long ago abandoned the philosophy of “God has given, God has taken away“ or “God gives children, so he will look after them”. The individual parents are seen as responsible for the quality of life of the children they bring into the world.

I consider it to be criminal to bring children into the world irresponsibly, so that my attitude is diametrically opposed to the attitude of those who see as criminal termination of life conceived or prevention of conception. I also see abortion as an evil. This evil should be allowed only in exceptional cases and its use limited by the use of modern contraceptives, by allowing for the possibility of family planning in such a way that there is no need for surgical abortion.

Do we have a right to plan? Who has given us the right to decide about life? This moral dilemma has appeared as a result of expansion of the borders of knowledge. We now have to face the question of difference between clinical and biological death; learning about the process of conception we have trouble with defining what is a human being. We have many problems unknown to past generations. At the same time morality deals first of all with conflicts of values. The bible gives us countless examples of such conflicts, of dilemmas of law givers seeking to limit selfish actions and moral relativism. The story of the search for God is also a history of legislation and of constant attempts to contain man’s selfish urges. During the Renaissance another attempt was made to discover universal laws of nature. It was made obvious that neither religion, in which the tradition of searching for God is linked to timeless intuition of what is moral, nor the “natural law”, which tried to link the wisdom of generations with enlightened rationalism, nor democracy, which takes into account the opinions of ordinary men – can free us from the burden of taking responsibility for choices made in the situation in which there is a conflict of absolute values.

Personally, when it comes to such choices, I vote for responsibility, for a couple who bring up their children and instil in them love and respect. I vote for contraception. This choice is based on the command to love one’s neighbour, on the wish that there should be a place for each child who is brought into the world, so that each “neighbour” is expected with anticipation. It is very difficult to love one’s neighbour in a world ruled by animal laws and in which people have to fight each other to survive.

The contraceptive revolution is far more valuable than journeys to the moon, to say nothing of the car, the colour television and other wonders of technology. Contraceptive revolution has allowed us to take away from nature some of the decision about the number of those whom we love.

The wrongly focussed discussion about contraception has led to a wave of fanaticism among Christians. Instead of the common cause aiming to limit the plague of surgical abortion used as a family planning method, the Church releases through its stance the most primitive fanaticism. In March 1993 Western press reported a shooting of a Gynaecologist by a fanatical anti-abortionist. The murderer, Michael Griffin, said that he acted “in the name of Christ”. Later abortion clinics were attacked by bombs, windows were broken and telephone threats used. The Polish press reported the case of a priest, who commanded the only children to wear black armbands at school, as a sign of mourning for their unborn siblings. There have been many cases of psychological and even physical terrorism. The Church hierarchy does not cut itself off from those actions and does not protest against violence committed in the name of God. Politicians who represent Christian parties appear not to see the difference between the care for life and the family on one hand and a primitive and often barbarian political campaigns.

The Warsaw weekly, Polityka, has shown in a characteristic example that the conflict about abortion is not about life, but about scholastically understood values, in an article entitled “Neither dishonour nor glory”. The majority of pregnancies is terminated not by gynaecologists but by Mother Nature. Gynaecologists often make superhuman efforts to save a pregnancy, which the body tries to end. Professor Teresa Pajszczyk from Lodz is a specialist in trying to combat the abortionist efforts on the part of Mother Nature. As the market economy took over, she had to limit her activities, as drugs needed to sustain an endangered pregnancy are so expensive that many mothers cannot afford them. The doctor advised the distraught women to appeal to Catholic organisations, who naturally should support such actions. According to “Polityka” Mr. Niesiolowski, at that time an M.P., was indignant at the suggestion. Obviously this interpretation of his conviction that conceived human life is sacred was, as he himself wrote to the Medical Association, “behaviour unworthy of a doctor”. Perhaps this is because Mother Nature does not sin. People commit sins, and Mr. Niesiolowski does not struggle to maintain life, the struggle is against sin. If his convictions are interpreted in this way, his dislike and irritation at the actions of a doctor trying to maintain conceived human life become quite understandable.

I must underline that by the word abortion I understand surgical termination of pregnancy. Does this mean that in my opinion so called abortifacients are a valid means of family planning on a par with contraceptives? As we know, a large proportion of embryos are discarded by the woman’s organism and an early miscarriage may even go unnoticed. Nature very often brings about abortion. A question arises why, if miscarriage is part of nature, we cannot bring it about through drugs or with the aid of a spiral? One may reply by making an analogy: people die, so why should we not kill them? The question regarding the beginning of human life is not that simple. What is the different between destroying a sperm and destroying a fertilised egg? Are we allowed to shift boundaries here? Abortifacients give more problems than contraceptives, because of the definition of human life accepted by the Church. I think it is much easier to understand the Church’s appeals to its faithful not to use abortifacients, than its prohibition of the use of all contraceptives. Here comes to mind another question – the right of the Church to enforce its moral concepts on the whole of society in matters which are still very controversial. The Church’s aggressive approach to these matters may well result in fanaticism which would act against life and against science. Personally I am against putting surgical abortion and murder on an equal footing. But many priests think that even the doctor who fits a woman with a spiral is a mass murderer. Many will even see the swallowing of a pill as murder. To what extent do such attitudes weaken the idea of murder? Surely there should be a gradation – while contraceptives are a blessing, abortifacients in the eyes of believers could be controversial , but they are a lesser evil than surgical abortion. This surely could be used to save the life of the mother or as a lesser of two evils , but is a social evil when used as a method of family planning. The worst nightmare, I think, is the killing of babies.

Not that long ago in Europe babies were killed in large numbers. Perhaps while splitting hairs in the discussion we have forgotten the basic facts. Let us remind ourselves of the existence of baby killing. We have little information about the size of this problem in Poland, but it was well known in a country as civilised as Britain. A book by a British historian, Lionel Rose, entitled “Massacre of the Innocents” appeared in London a few years ago. The author uses statistics, reports of cases in criminal court, witness of doctors. He analyses the problem of child killing in the years 1800-1939.

As far back as 1624 there existed a law, that a mother who tries to hide that she had given birth is guilty of murder. On the other hand, the first attempts in the eighteenth century of setting up institutions to care for abandoned children were met with indignation on the part of champions of morality. Like the present critics of contraception, they maintained that such actions would encourage vice.

It was not for the first time that moralists attacked the results without understanding the causes of that of which they disapproved. Industrialisation and urban living resulted in dramatic changes in housing conditions, introduced previously unknown mobility and weakened traditional forms of social control. As industrialisation and urbanisation grew, so did the number of children conceived out of wedlock. In the modern era child killing is primarily connected with unmarried mothers, who often had no means of looking after their children. According to Lionel Rose, official statistics show that in the middle of the 19th century in Britain over fifty thousand children a year were born out of wedlock. He considers those numbers to be about 30% higher, as a large number of births remained hidden. Mortality among illegitimate babies varied between 60-90%, while the average for the country was at that time 15%. The author states that at the time, in the middle of the nineteenth century, neonatal mortality was already rapidly falling. Even at the end of the seventeenth century a quarter of babies did not live beyond their second birthday. The reasons for such high mortality lay in lack of food, lack of hygiene, often alcoholism of the parents or simply neglect. Poverty reaped its terrible harvest. A mother who decided to get rid of her child could easily do it , as no-one would try to find out if the neglect was intentional or unintentional. The death of a baby was a natural and frequent occurrence. The powers that be were interested in death which was the result of violence – poison, strangling or drowning. In 1864 our of the total number of 112 thousand baby deaths 1730 were under this category. Often the courts would decide that the cause lay in the parents’ ignorance rather than in a conscious decision. Death was often caused by giving the baby excessive alcohol to stop it from crying , unsuitable food or the suffocating of the baby by an adult under the influence of alcohol.

Since the death of a baby was seen as natural, people were not too disturbed by the finding of children’s bodies in rivers and canals. In 1861 The Times wrote: “During the last five years in the London area were found the bodies of two hundred and eighty murdered babies. Over sixty were found in the Thames and in canals, over one hundred under railway arches, in staircases, in rubbish dumps, in cellars and similar places”.

This occurrence was obviously growing in frequency, as just in one year, in 1870, the London police noted 276 bodies of murdered babies. At the same time it was assumed that most of the bodies had never been found. The creation of sewers and the liquidation of earth closets caused a sudden growth in the number of bodies found. Very few of the perpetrators were ever found and only a small number of people were sentenced. Lionel Rose pointed out, that “the consciously carried out holocaust of illegitimate babies immediately after birth left only a small proportion of them alive at the age of one year.”

Midwives often aided the mother in disposing of unwanted children. The figures show that in 1858 out of 600 thousand of confinements there were 60 thousand stillbirths. Over half of those “stillbirths” were illegitimate. There is doubt how such statistics should be interpreted.

A clear fall in birth-rate begins towards the end of the nineteenth century. Abortifacients, abortion, contraception, slowly begin to making it possible to plan one’s family. As Lionel Rose writes – women were determined to limit the number of babies to as many children as they could bring up. The number of illegitimate children also went down. The number of children killed slowly fell. At the end of his book Lionel Rose wrote: “Historically speaking, the value of live of a new-born baby is determined by market forces and by an attitude towards death of a given society. In periods of high fertility and high child mortality people were fatalistic. The death of a baby was commented simply by saying “It was God’s will” with a sigh of relief that the child would not have to suffer in this valley of tears. When fewer babies were born, when the standard of living , medical knowledge and better hygiene undermined this fatalistic view, the life of a baby became more valuable”.

Members of anti-abortion lobbies, campaigners against the use of modern contraceptives, without exception put themselves forward as defenders of life. The reduction of the defence of life to propaganda slogans and taking the whole discussion out of its historical context, fanatical campaigns for values which are divorced from human realities , appear to me to go against what I see as the essence of Christianity – love of one’s neighbour, humility, ability to understand and to forgive. I found a very similar way of thinking expressed by Jacek Kuron in an interview published by Tygodnik Powszechny (2.7.95). “How can we speak about love he said – when we make the woman afraid and force motherhood on her? It is true that abortion is an evil. Motherhood and the woman who carries a new life are sacred. But for that very reason no-one should interfere by bringing criminal law and the police between her and the new life. That is contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel never commanded that someone should be sent to prison. On the contrary, it said “visit those in prison”.

This book was to be about the love between a man and a woman, about the value of marriage which is based on true partnership. But a study of life and the family cannot be divorced from their social aspect. The fear of overpopulation also gave rise to a philosophical attitude of contempt for life and the concept of limiting population numbers through the physical elimination of “less valuable” individuals. That attitude is also present in our European heritage, and we should not leave it aside when discussing the problem of family planning and birth control.

Many people referring to abortion use the expression “holocaust”. I think this is a serious abuse of the word, which shows contempt for the suffering of conscious human beings. This is not new. The rise of nazism was preceded by European philosophies of the intellectual elites, who highly valued their own opinions but were unable to feel compassion for their neighbour.

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