Justyna Wydrzyńska, an abortion activist and doula, was found guilty by a Polish court of providing a woman in need with help during the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking concern among human and women's rights organisations.
Abortion Without Borders (AWB) has helped over 1,800 people access a pregnancy termination since the start of the Ukraine conflict which began just over a year ago.
AWB is an initiative of six organisations from across Europe, who provide information, support and access to abortion pills for those in need, including for women who need to travel to another country for a procedure. This has often proven difficult for those in need, especially with limited access to abortion in neighbouring countries, such as Poland.
Earlier this month, a Warsaw court found activist Justyna Wydrzyńska guilty of assisting with an abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic and sentenced her to 30 hours of community service every month for ten months.
She had been facing up to three years in prison, but the result will be little comfort to people across Europe and beyond needing support in the wake of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe-v-Wade and the tightening of restrictions across the world.
Amnesty International say Wydrzyńska's trial is the first case in Europe where a pro-abortion activist has been charged for providing abortion pills. Since she was prosecuted, they've called for the charges against her to be dropped and for abortion access to be “fully decriminalised" in Poland.
Abortion Without Borders
Among the six members of the grassroots AWB network is the British-based Abortion Support Network (ASN). Sam Smethers, interim CEO of ASN explained how crucial Abortion Without Borders has been in helping people in war-torn Ukraine, saying people from that country are “facing extremely complex and challenging circumstances”.
As of 24 February - a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine - AWB has helped 1,814 women access abortions. Most were given abortion pills and around 30 Ukrainians were helped to travel to another European country in order to secure their terminations.
While abortion is legal in Ukraine up until 12 weeks, it’s far harder to get access to the procedure after that cutoff point and it’s especially tricky while the country is embroiled in war.
AWB has been working in conjunction with the non-profit organisation Women Help Women, who have researchers based across four continents and focus on supporting self-managed, rather than surgical, abortion particularly in places where the process is restricted by law, stigma or lack of access.
Women Help Women have helped with AWB’s ability to supply around 40,000 packs of abortion pills and 100,000 morning-after pills to feminist organisations operating in Ukraine.
Many of the 30-plus Ukrainians who have been assisted to travel abroad for second trimester abortions had been diagnosed with foetal abnormalities but denied an abortion in Poland and other neighbouring countries.
A dark day for Poland
Justyna Wydrzyńska's case has demonstrated how strict laws are in majority-Catholic Poland. The country has been embroiled in a huge disagreement with abortion and human rights activists, making it even more difficult for Ukrainian women in need to access treatment.
Activist Justyna Wydrzyńska is a founder of Abortion Dream Team - one of AWB’s six member organisations - and works as a doula, accompanying people throughout abortions as well as offering training and non-judgmental advice on how to get a safe abortion.
Two years ago, in May 2021, the Prosecutor in Polish capital Warsaw issued a warrant to search and confiscate any items from Wydrzyńska’s home, after receiving information about her involvement in supporting a pregnant woman who needed pills during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Wydrzyńska was accused of providing abortion pills to a pregnant woman, who said she was a victim of domestic violence.
On 1 June 2021, police removed abortion pills - including mifepristone and misoprostol, a computer, pen drives and mobile phones belonging to Wydrzyńska and her two children. She was charged that November for helping with an abortion and for possession of medicines without authorisation for the purpose of introducing them into the market. Both mifepristone and misoprostol are included in the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Essential Medicines List, although Polish prosecutors have argued that they are not authorised for use in Poland.
Poland’s abortion legislation is among the most restrictive in all of Europe. The procedure is only permitted in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the pregnant person is in danger. It got tougher in October 2020, when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion on the grounds of fatal or severe foetal impairment was unconstitutional, eliminating it as one of the few remaining legal grounds for termination. Prior to that ruling, more than 90% of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions performed annually in Poland were on that ground.
Amnesty International had called for Wydrzyńska’s trial to be thrown out of court and ASN say more than 110,000 people have sent letters to the public prosecutor calling for charges against her to be dropped.
The next step for Wydrzyńska is to appeal. She says she’s received messages of solidarity from many women, including offers to serve the sentence in her place.
It's unlikely her appeal will be heard soon. Poland is in campaign mode ahead of elections expected this autumn. Polls show the conservative Law and Justice party, which has governed the country since 2015, winning the most votes but falling short of a majority in parliament.
Although the clampdown on abortion rights sparked the largest street demonstrations in post-communist Poland, the ruling party’s deeply conservative positions often play well with certain parts of the electorate.