By Maria Wejcman and Wojciech Strupczewski
WARSAW (Reuters) - A proposal to completely ban abortion in Poland is posing a dilemma for the ruling conservatives, wary of antagonizing the powerful Catholic Church if they fail to support it or fanning public outcry if they do.
Parliament started debating draft legislation on Thursday that would forbid abortion under any circumstances, tightening already restrictive rules that allow it only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother or baby have serious health problems.
The Catholic Church supports the proposal, introduced by an independent conservative think-tank, but the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party appears reluctant to give its full backing.
The debate points to a growing influence of conservative Catholic values in Polish public life since the staunchly eurosceptic PiS unseated the more secular-minded centrists in an election last October.
PiS has ended state funding for in-vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure the Catholic Church says is sinful, and reinstated a prescription requirement for emergency contraception pills, also banned by the Church.
Poland remains one of Europe's most Catholic nations, with about 90 percent of citizens declaring allegiance to the church but the clergy's sway over the heart and soul of churchgoers has been waning.
"A lengthy debate on the issue in parliament is a threat because society is reluctant to change current rules," said Jacek Chwedoruk, a political scientist at Warsaw University.
Earlier this year, thousands of protesters waving wire hangers, a crude pregnancy termination tool used as a symbol by abortion rights campaigners, marched outside parliament.
As politicians began debating the bill this week, women opposed to the ban posted pictures of themselves on Facebook dressed in black.
Political analysts say PiS may end up backing some of the abortion restrictions but not a full ban, allowing the procedure in the case of rape or immediate danger to the mother's life but not health problems of the fetus.
"We need to stop children from being killed because they have development flaws. This is inhuman," PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in an interview in April.
"(But) the state cannot force a woman to die if she wants to save her own life."
Official statistics show several hundred legal abortions are conducted in Poland each year but activists say many women are denied access to the procedure when doctors invoke a legal right to decline to perform it on moral or religious grounds.
Tens of thousands are done illegally, activists say, with many women crossing the border to Germany or Slovakia to obtain the procedure.
Aside from the abortion ban, parliament will also discuss draft legislation that would severely restrict rules on IVF, as well as an easing of abortion rules introduced by abortion rights campaigners.
(Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw; writing by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Robin Pomeroy)