For the past several years, as I have struggled to put the escalating tumult of global abortion politics into some sort of order inside my own mind, I have returned over and over to two events.
They happened in different countries, in different years. They produced opposite outcomes. And yet I could not shake the feeling that looking at them together might help me understand something important about the way the world works.
The first event was on May 25, 2018, when the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment that legalized abortion.
The second was on Oct. 22, 2020, when Poland’s Constitutional Court voted to impose new restrictions on the right to abortion, turning the country’s abortion prohibition, already one of the strictest in Europe, into a near-total ban.
The most striking thing about those two decisions is that viewed from a distance, one might reasonably have expected them to come out the same way.
In both countries, the Catholic Church has long had a central role in national identity and been deeply entangled with state institutions. In both, the citizenry is overwhelmingly Catholic. Both are members of the European Union. Both have undergone rapid economic development in recent decades, bringing many citizens out of poverty and into the urban European middle class.
Yet on abortion, the most prominent issue of Catholic morality in politics, Ireland and Poland went in entirely opposite directions. Why?
It turns out that these two examples show the double-edged sword of church involvement in politics: Morality campaigns can be a path to political power for churches, but that can come at a steep price.
The experiences of both countries may, in different ways, carry a warning for the religious groups that have formed close alliances with the Republican Party in the United States.
Power, scandal, then change
“Yes, yes, yes!” chanted a crowd at Dublin Castle after the government announced that the amendment had passed by an overwhelming margin. “Yes we did!” Men and women hugged each other, some crying tears of joy, as they waved banners and signs celebrating the victory.
The passage of the amendment was arguably the most resounding public rejection of Catholic doctrine in Irish political history. Yet in many ways, the rejection had already happened. In the campaign against the amendment ahead of the vote, the church had stayed on the sidelines.
“The anti-abortion campaigns were not fronted by clergy,” said Sydney Calkin, a lecturer at Queen Mary University in London who studies the politics of gender and reproduction.
“They weren’t fronted by people who used religious rhetoric or religious reasoning. They were fronted by anti-abortion lawyers, anti-abortion doctors and people who used kind of moral arguments. There was no sort of appeal to Catholicism as a reason to oppose abortion.”
The repudiation of the church was about far more than abortion.
A series of scandals involving the abuse and deaths of women and children at the hands of the church, including in state-funded child care facilities and schools, had shattered the church’s public legitimacy and provoked a national reckoning about its role in the Irish state.
Precisely because the church had such a powerful political and institutional role in Ireland, running schools, orphanages, hospitals and other institutions, “no parent felt like their child was safe,” said Anna Grzymala-Busse, a Stanford University political scientist and the author of “Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics.”
“This church that was given the most vulnerable people in Ireland under its care, in the name of the common good, turned out to have entirely betrayed that,” she said.
In the ensuing public uproar, support for the church collapsed.
“It basically goes from being one of the most trusted public institutions to not only losing support in the faith world, but being unable to counter referendums on abortion and on gay marriage,” Grzymala-Busse said. “It’s now a political non-presence in Ireland because the scale of the treachery of the betrayal was so huge.”
The price of politics
In Poland, the church is also deeply intertwined with the state, in part because it helped broker the country’s transition to democracy after the fall of Communism, leading many to view it as a guardian of national identity as well as faith.
But because of a period of Communist rule, the church has played that central role in Polish politics only in recent decades. So while Poland has also seen scandals related to sexual abuse in the church, they have been smaller in scope than those in Ireland and treated more as isolated tragedies than a systemic catastrophe, Grzymala-Busse said.
But while the church did not suffer the same kind of reputational collapse that it did in Ireland, it did have to contend with the expectations of Polish society, particularly Polish women. They had widespread access to abortion during Communism, and, many were angered by a compromise that saw the country outlaw abortion as the price of the church’s backing for its transition to democracy.
So in 2016, when a petition from a conservative think tank forced the Polish Parliament to take up a law that would have narrowed the country’s already restrictive abortion ban even further, mass protests ensued, and the bill failed.
That put the governing Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, in a bind.
The party’s leadership had cast itself as the link between the Catholic Church, the Polish state, and Polish national identity. Abandoning the abortion restrictions risked jeopardizing that public role and alienating the party’s political base, particularly older Catholic conservatives in rural areas.
But pursuing the draconian ban was unpopular with the broader public, and seemed unlikely to get through Parliament. Instead, the government took a lateral route, pushing the abortion restrictions through the Constitutional Court, which had been stacked with PiS loyalists.
For the moment, Grzymala-Busse said, that seemed like a way for the church to have it both ways: The court decision signaled how politically powerful the church’s views were, but the court takes much of the political heat.
In the longer term, it associated the Catholic Church, and the abortion law in particular, with the Law and Justice party’s undermining of democratic institutions, a broader authoritarian turn that has led many to warn that the Polish democracy is in danger.
If the PiS continues along that path, public association with it may eventually prove to be a liability for the church.
“A church’s moral authority is its greatest treasure when it comes to influencing policy,” Grzymala-Busse said. “But as soon as you become allied with politicians or parties, as soon as you show yourself to have feet of clay, it becomes a much less viable proposition.”
Feet of clay, American style
In the United States, church abuse scandals have provoked a wide and ongoing reckoning, but not the total collapse of public support that occurred in Ireland. But the modern anti-abortion movement has been rooted in partisan politics from the beginning,Mary Ziegler, a historian of abortion law, told me.
Before the 1970s and 80s, Ziegler said, abortion had been seen as a Catholic issue in the United States and one that cut across different constituencies in both parties. It wasn’t, though, a major, salient political issue.
But following the Civil Rights Act and the rise of the women’s movement, the Republican Party leaned into the issue as a way to shore up support among white, Southern voters. Abortion became seen as an overwhelmingly Republican issue.
As long as Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, Republican politicians were able to pass essentially symbolic legislation banning abortion, reaping the political benefits of casting themselves as the protectors of Christian morality without having to face a backlash.
But, as in Poland, abortion restrictions are unpopular with much of the broader public despite their appeal to the Republican base. And now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion restrictions appear to be becoming a liability for the party, as evidenced by the recent vote in Kansas, where voters resoundingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion there.
“This is the dog that finally caught the car,” Grzymala-Busse said. “And it’s now getting pummeled by it.”
And what about how the Christian right will fare from its association with the G.O.P.?
The close association between them means that the anti-abortion movement is tied to a party that seems increasingly unable — and in many cases unwilling — to control extremism within its ranks. The cost of that in the long term may prove greater than the political power it has brought thus far.