WARSAW, Poland (AP) — As Poland's Catholic Church prepares to celebrate 1,050 years as the national faith, a call by its bishops for a total ban on abortion has embroiled the church in a divisive and potentially harmful debate.
The church that was crucial in preserving the nation's spirit and identity in World War II and under decades of communism has now provoked massive street protests and even a walkout from one church.
"In this jubilee year of Poland's baptism, we urge all people of goodwill, believers and nonbelievers, to take action to ensure full legal protection of unborn lives," the bishops said, linking the issue to the anniversary.
The climate seems favorable for tightening Poland's anti-abortion law, already one of Europe's strictest, because power is currently held by a conservative government whose members stress they are Catholics and follow the bishops' teaching. Some 90 percent of Poles declare themselves as Catholics.
The ruling Law and Justice party won presidential and parliamentary elections last year largely thanks to the church's support.
"The call to tighten the anti-abortion law is the bill that the church wants Law and Justice to pay in return for the huge support," said Zbigniew Mikolejko, a sociologist.
But the bishops' appeal for an unconditional ban on abortion quickly met resistance.
"We believe that Poland should be spared from that debate and from its consequences," said Grzegorz Schetyna, an opposition leader. "We can see an atmosphere that will lead to new street protests and referendum initiatives."
The government has reacted cautiously. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said it is not preparing legislation on abortion, and says it would be "bad if an issue so sensitive and important became an element of political struggle."
Some government policies converge with the bishops' views: a program funding in-vitro fertilization, that has led to some 3,600 births, will be closed in July, and government subsidies are to be scrapped for the costly "morning-after" pill.
The homeland of the late pope, St. John Paul II, celebrates the anniversary with great pomp this week with prayers at the 10th century Gothic Cathedral of Gniezno and a parliament session. Ceremonies planned jointly by the government and the church will stress Poland's Catholic identity. In July, Poland will host Pope Francis' meeting with world youth.
Poland's ruler, Prince Mieszko I, adopted Christianity around the year 966 under the influence of his wife, Princess Dobrava of Bohemia, according to chroniclers. That linked Poland to the papacy and to the western world, and coupled political power to the church until after World War II.
The current government is trying to restore some of that position. It has donated to a church foundation and has exempted the church from a restrictive land inheritance law. Church leaders feature prominently at some state ceremonies.
The recent protests highlighted a contrary tendency among many Poles.
"In a contemporary world very often very strict rules and regulations from the church do not apply sometimes to the realities of everyday life," commented Grzegorz Mika, 31, adding: "Everybody should follow their own conscience."
That recourse to conscience is generally in line with the recent document on family life by Pope Francis, who said that a couple should follow their consciences rather than just apply blanket rules on matters of contraception. However, he ruled out abortion under any circumstance.
"So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother's womb, that no alleged right to one's own body can justify a decision to terminate that life," he wrote in "The Joy of Love."
On April 3, when the Polish bishops' call against abortion was read out in churches, pro-abortion groups held protests in many cities — their participants carrying coat hangers as symbols of illegal, life-threatening abortions. There was a walkout from a Warsaw church, and a picket before Poland's Embassy in the Czech Republic.
A hard-won compromise between the church and the liberal circles in 1993 permits abortion only when the woman's life or health is threatened, the pregnancy results from crimes including rape or incest, or the fetus is irreparably damaged. Under communism, abortion was available on demand.
The bishops' statement said Poland "cannot continue with the current compromise." A "Stop Abortion" group has proposed prison sentences of up to five years for doctors, other health workers and the woman involved in an abortion.
"It is a shame on the state that it allows for the killing of defenseless, unborn children," Mariusz Dzierzawski of the anti-abortion group told the AP.
The National Health Fund says there were over 1,800 abortions in 2014, compared to over 1,350 in 2013. Women's rights groups say up to 200,000 abortions are performed illegally or abroad each year.
"Tightening of the law will push people away from the church," Mikolejko said, adding: "It is a suicide step that will also weaken the ruling party."
On the other side, Arkadiusz Czartoryski, a ruling party lawmaker and father of two, has said: "What difference is there if a child is conceived through rape or not?"