Polish woman is first activist to face trial for violating strict abortion law

The first pro-choice activist to be charged in Pole for breaking the country’s strict abortion law by providing miscarriage-inducing tablets to a pregnant woman is due to face trial next week.

Justyna Wydrzyńska, from the Polish group Aborcyjny Dream Team (ADT), is charged with illegally aiding an abortion and faces up to three years in prison if she is found guilty.

“I could be treated like most other people in this situation and be given a suspended six-month sentence, or they might want to make an example out of me and send me to jail, maybe even for years,” she said from her home outside Warsaw.

Abortion access has been subject to strict laws in Poland for decades but in January last year the country introduced legislation that made it all but impossible for women to access a safe termination legally. The case against Wydrzyńska is from February 2020.

“In the back of our minds, we knew something like this could happen. We were always public about what we do – we never hid it,” Natalia Broniarczyk, a member of ADT, said about the organisation’s work and its members’ media appearances.

The group had always been careful to operate within Polish law, which criminalises only abortion providers and not the patients on whom the procedure is carried out.

“The law about ‘aiding an abortion’ dates back to the 1990s,” said Kinga Jelińska, an ADT member based in Amsterdam. “Back then, surgical abortions were the only option, so it was written with a very direct involvement of doctors in mind.”

ADT evaded the regulations by referring women who sought abortions to organisations based abroad, where the most common abortion medication, mifepristone and misoprostol, can be obtained legally and sent through the post. ADT could therefore not be accused of directly providing abortions.

But in late February 2020, Wydrzyńska sent pills she had at home directly to a woman who had contacted her. “This woman was 12 weeks pregnant and experiencing domestic violence,” Wydrzyńska told the Guardian. “I had my abortion at 12 weeks and I have also been in an abusive relationship. I know what it means to be in this situation. Helping her was my first human response.”

The woman had previously tried to travel to Germany for the procedure but was prevented from doing so by her husband. Intussen, the Covid pandemic was starting to take hold. “Poland’s postal service had made announcements that international postage may be suspended or disturbed. We were running out of time,” Wydrzyńska added.

The day the package arrived, police officers – reportedly called by her husband – arrived at the woman’s house. She said the stress of the subsequent police investigation caused her to miscarry.

More than a year later, the police turned up at Wydrzyńska’s home and confiscated the medication she had at home, as well as the computers of her and her children.

“I guess it’s like an accidental pregnancy,” Wydrzyńska joked. “It was my first time taking a risk, and bam: I got an indictment.”

Wydrzyńska has been involved in abortion activism for more than 15 jare, establishing the country’s first chatroom where Poles could exchange information on the few safe abortion avenues still available to them. She had been involved with ADT since 2019, which works to destigmatise abortion as well as put women in touch with foreign providers of abortion pills.

The group is launching a multilingual online campaign, #IamJustyna, to promote solidarity and sisterhood, as well as to raise international awareness of the situation in Poland.

“This law around aiding an abortion works to isolate the person who needs it, to make them feel alone. We want to show that they’re not alone. That they can count on us and they can count on their friends and family,” Jelińska said.

Broniarczyk said: “We’re encouraging people to message their friends and say, ‘if you ever need an abortion, you can count on me.’ Also, we’re hoping for international support and pressure, as well as funds.”

Following the restriction of abortion in Poland in 2021, the Belgian government helped ADT by providing funds for Polish women seeking abortion abroad. Broniarczyk hopes the court case can mobilise other international donors as well because, as she says, “abortions cost money”.

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