Why Poland's First IVF Child Has Kissed The Catholic Church Goodbye

After becoming the first person in Poland born from in vitro fertilization, Agnieszka Ziolkowska, 26, decided it was time to act after Catholic leaders compared IVF to "plant breeding."

Agnieszka Ziolkowska (center), proudly proclaims herself Poland's first "test-tube baby."
Agnieszka Ziolkowska (center), proudly proclaims herself Poland's first "test-tube baby."

WARSAW - By all accounts, Agnieszka Ziolkowska was the first Polish person to be born thanks to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in this very Catholic country. Now, 26 years later, she is back in the headlines.

Ziolkowska, a Roman Catholic, had made it be known that she had been considering apostasy -- the voluntary renunciation of one’s religion -- ever since the Polish Bishops Conference published a seminal "bioethical document" in April. In the report, meant to address key challenges facing contemporary culture, the Polish Catholic hierarchy strongly condemned IVF, calling it “a procedure derived from animal and plant breeding.” The document accused infertile couples using IVF of ”delegating the production of their child to others.”

Ziolkowska, who was brought up in a Catholic family, and went to Catholic schools, finally made her apostasy formal earlier this month. “Those people think that they can trample the dignity of others from the heights of their authority,” she said. Even though she is not a churchgoer anymore, she wanted to “symbolically cut her relation” with the Catholic Church.

"Next stage of hate"

Catholic leaders in Poland had stepped up their criticism against the in vitro procedures after the Polish government announced in March that it will reimburse couples with state funds for fertility treatment. The program started July 1.

In a recent interview, the 26-year-old explained her stance. “The Church’s claims are eligible for legal prosecution for violation of personal rights,” she said. “It is the next stage of a hate and stigmatization campaign against IVF children and their parents.”

Ziolkowska recalled that in 2009, a well-known Polish bishop called IVF “the realization of the Frankenstein idea.” One of the authors of the bioethics document, Father Franciszek Longchamps de Berier claimed in an interview that “there are doctors who can recognize an IVF child by characteristic lines on their foreheads, signs of genetic defects.”

Ziolkowska was born in May 1987 in Rome where her father was studying on a scholarship. The couple had been trying to conceive for a long time, to no avail, when they were given the possibility of in vitro treatment -- at that time not practiced in Poland, and totally reimbursed by the Italian social security system. “I was 15 or 16 when I learned that I was a test-tube baby”, recalls Ziolkowska. After the first shock, she came to the conclusion that she was “living proof that progress is good” and that she “should be grateful” for her life.

Bishops conference spokesman Father Jozef Kloch said the Church "does not stigmatize IVF children. Every child deserves to be fully accepted and loved, and they are all equally loved by the Church.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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