Wanda Półtawska, a Polish doctor, is 97 years old. Her life and work is unknown outside her native Poland and some quarters of the Catholic Church, but her insights and influence have prospered the mission of the Church in defending the dignity of all human beings.
Equally unknown by most people is the long, close friendship she and her family enjoyed with Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. In the 1960s, she advised him on family dynamics and sexual issues, including the newly developed contraceptive pill.
Through this relationship her views on artificial birth control are likely to have influenced Pope Paul VI in his writing of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which ruled out family planning methods like the pill. Indeed, one biographer of John Paul II claims that not only her ideas but “in some cases her exact words can be found in the text.” (See note below)
The pill, in Dr Półtawska’s judgment, was no friend of married love and still less a healthy choice for women. She saw it as an assault on a woman’s dignity bringing not freedom, but a form of moral enslavement. It was a spoiler of love between spouses, an excuse for men to shirk their paternal responsibilities, and a straight path to abortion, pornography, sexual abuse and euthanasia. It was, in short, a destructive tool for the agendas of radical politics.
Having been herself a victim of the medical experimentation carried out by the Nazis during World War II, she also saw the pill as a tool of the eugenics movement for eliminating racially impure human beings.
Wanda Półtawska was just a slight teenage girl when she was dragged away to prison by four big men of the Gestapo. She spent most of the next four years in Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she, along with others, experienced the extreme of what was meant by eugenics. She endured having injections of bacteria into wounds deliberately created in order to observe the effect. This indescribably horrible and painful ordeal is recorded in her memoir, And I Am Afraid of My Dreams.
Before her incarceration, Wanda had been preparing to become a Classical scholar and teacher. But while in the hell of Ravensbrück she resolved that if she survived she would become a good doctor. Weak and disfigured in her legs, she did survive, went home and began her medical studies.
She married Dr Andrzej Półtawski in 1947, and they had four daughters. She completed her medical studies in 1951 at the Jagiellonian University, and in 1964 completed her doctorate in psychiatry, specializing in the care of sexual abuse victims and disorders of concentration camp survivors, whom she called her “Auschwitz children”.
By providential chance, sometime in the mid-1950s, Dr Półtawska took a pilgrimage with other Catholic doctors to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa, where she happened to meet Karol Wojtyla, assistant bishop of Krakow. She and her husband became close friends of the bishop, often discussing with him matters closest to their hearts and lives: chaste sexuality, marital relations, religion, theology, family life, marriage, celibacy, contraceptives, communism, philosophy and the changing times in the church and world.
Continuing pro-life work she had already begun with other women in the Krakow archdiocese before she met Bishop Wojtyla, she became his chief assistant in developing and managing programmes of marriage and sex counseling, as well as family and health care ministry there. This included a home for unwed mothers run by volunteers, which survived harassment by the communist authorities from 1957 to 1965, when it was forced to close.
She taught natural family planning, but took care to emphasize the possibility of conception and the importance of spouses remaining open to a child in their sexual relations, as Humanae Vitae was to reaffirm.
When, in 1962, Dr Półtawska was diagnosed with malignant colon cancer, Bishop Wojtyla – then in Rome for the opening of the second Vatican Council — wrote and asked for the prayers of the Italian mystic Padre Pio, with whom he was acquainted. In 1947, the newly ordained Fr. Wojtyla had been to visit the Capuchin friar and spent a week in San Giovanni Rotunda where they talked together. When, 15 years later, Padre Pio received Wojtyla’s hand-delivered letter with the urgent request, he agreed to honour the written plea. A few days later the Polish doctors prepared to operate on their colleague, but they found that the cancer had vanished; there was no tumor upon which to operate. This healing, which had no medical explanation, was cited as one of the miracles contributing to the canonization of Padre Pio in 2002.
With her strong understanding of family, Dr Półtawska contributed to Wojtyla’s book on romantic theology, Love and Responsibility, with its theme of sexual love between husband and wife. At a time when the topic of women’s sexual experience was not spoken of openly, but largely assumed to be the same as the male’s experience, she threw Freudian psychology on its ear by openly insisting that husbands get over their selfishness and train themselves to cherish their wives and caress them lovingly in slow and intimate ways so that their wives might know spousal love through female orgasm. At the same time she criticized “the myth of orgasm”, that is, the contemporary pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.
Wanda Półtawska’s faith, service, wisdom and love were forged through extreme suffering. Having experienced the vilest of indignities during the Second World War, she became a powerful witness for human dignity and for purity in intimate matters. Holiness in marriage and in the priesthood, decency and proper regard for the health of women were greatly needed in a critical moment of the dark 20th century.
Although the backwash of controversy following Humanae Vitae was violent and divisive, 50 years later there is a change, if not yet peace. The wisdom and sanity of that encyclical is beginning to be realized within and beyond the church and even, implicitly, in the secular world, where young women unhappy with hormonal contraception are turning to natural methods of family planning.
Indeed, the pill has been a bitter one, with many evil consequences, all foretold by this little known Polish doctor, wife, mother and concentration camp survivor.
Ruth Lasseter lives in a three generation household in St Paul, Minnesota. Mother of six and grandmother of 17, she contributed with her late husband Dr Rollin A. Lasseter to the Catholic School Textbook Project, and served in the Moreau Seminary (1983-84) as the “Voice of the Family”. Her article on contraception and sterilization, “Sensible Sex”, appeared in “Homiletic and Pastoral Review” and also in Why Humanae Vitae was Right (1993) by Dr Janet E. Smith.
Note: See, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, by Jonathan Kwitny, page 219; cited in Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church (2008), pp. 295-296, by Ted Lipien.