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Transatlantic Blog

In the welfare state, human life is just another budget item

Statist economic policies inevitably lead to devaluing the human person, as lamentable developments in my home country of Poland demonstrate.

After the Irish referendum which repealed the Eighth Amendment of its Constitution, Poland is the largest country in Europe in which abortion is strictly limited. This limitations date back to 1993 when, after the collapse of Communism, the Polish parliament instituted what became known as the nation’s “abortion compromise.” This new law has allowed abortion only when a pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother; when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act such as rape, incest, or a sexual act involving a minor; or in the case of serious fetal deformity.

This legal step toward protecting life, together with the strong ministry of the Roman Catholic Church to the unborn, bore positive fruit: The number of legal abortions performed in Poland dropped from 11,640 in 1992 to less than 2,000 yearly after 1999. And according to UN data, Poland has remained among the world’s top countries in terms of maternal mortality. Perhaps as a result of these successes, the number of people supporting abortion plummeted from 53 percent in 1992 to 12 percent in 2016.

Poland illustrates the darker, hidden side of the social welfare state.

Despite imposing relatively strict limits on abortion by European standards, a considerable number of legal abortions are performed in Poland annually. And “legal” in the context of a country with a generous state-financed health care system means “state-funded.” In 2016 a total of 1,098 legal abortion procedures were performed in Poland, 54 more than the previous year. Approximately 95 percent of them (1,042) were performed on the basis of fetal impairment – including 221 for Down syndrome.

This means that in 2016 Polish taxpayers, including clergy, funded the abortion of 1,042 human beings whose only crime was being suspected of having a non-fatal genetic condition.

Thus, the “compromise” has been an uneasy one for pro-life citizens of this mostly Catholic country. The Catechism of Catholic Church teaches: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC 2270). This means that there is no difference between the human dignity and right to life between the handicapped and the healthy.

In November 2017, some 830,000 citizens supported a legislative initiative to eliminate abortion on eugenic grounds. The drive, supported by the Catholic Church, was submitted to the parliament, which is controlled by the socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party. But though the party purportedly supports life, family, and fecundity, its members dragged their feet.

Soon the reason became apparent: the medical costs on the state-run health care costs posed by the survivors. A report from an official parliamentary body, the Bureau of Parliamentary Analysis, stated that “adoption of this project will have negative social, legal, and even financial consequences.” The pro-life project was even called “inhuman” by a PiS deputy, Joanna Lichocka. According to a Polish state institution, the state cannot allow the sick to live, because it will prove too costly to the taxpayer-funded health care system. Thus, eventually the proposal was sent into parliamentary limbo.

The state that redistributes the wealth of its citizens sooner or later ends up seeing the human person only from the perspective of potential incomes and expenditures.

This seems to be the real core of the problem: The statist ideology of PiS results in overvaluing the State and undervaluing human life. The Polish government is ready to sacrifice the lives of some for the sake of preserving its government health care program without blowing the budget. A great Pole, John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, called considering “the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism” a “mistaken conception of the person.”

Poland illustrates the darker, hidden side of the social welfare state. The state that redistributes the wealth of its citizens sooner or later ends up seeing the human person only from the perspective of potential incomes and expenditures. The social state tends to regard the human person only as a part of society: It tends to “invest” resources in people only when it sees a potential return on investment. From this simplistic point of view, people with severe maladies don’t produce income for the State and are therefore “unprofitable.”

The terrifying case of Alfie Evans, who was denied care by the UK’s NHS against his parents’ will and despite the offer of help from foreign states, is instructive. Many observers were shocked by the sum spent by the hospital for legal fees: £145,000. According to common sense, this money could have been better spent curing their patient. But his case could potentially serve as precedent in similar cases, which would prove more costly for the NHS in the future. Although Poland does not yet intervene this deeply into its citizens’ lives, the fact that putatively conservative politicians admit that limiting abortion would lead to excessive expenditure shows how universal this mindset has become among state authorities.

Poland, thankfully, still has a relatively low number of abortions. However, thanks to its social welfare policies, my country risks following the path of Western Europe where it is the State, and not the child’s parents, that makes the most crucial decisions about the lives of vulnerable children.

(Photo credit: Andrés Nieto Porras. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics. You can contact him at marcin.rzegocki@gmail.com.