More than a year after Poland enacted a near-total abortion ban, the first Polish abortion rights activist to be charged with breaking the law will stand trial this week. Justyna Wydrzyńska, an organizer at Poland’s Abortion Dream Team (ADT), gave a pregnant woman experiencing domestic violence medication abortion pills in February 2020, and now faces up to three years in jail.
Notably, even before Poland’s abortion ban took effect in January 2021, laws dating back to the 1990s prohibited “aiding an abortion,” an ADT spokesperson told The Guardian, and these laws have primarily targeted abortion providers, because for years, surgical abortions were the only option available to people seeking abortion. Since Polish law criminalizes abortion providers but not patients, ADT evaded criminalization by referring people seeking abortion care to international groups that mailed medication abortion pills. But at the onset of the covid pandemic in early 2020, this was no longer an option when Poland’s postal service suspended international packages.
In February, Wydrzyńska told The Guardian she was contacted by a woman who was 12 weeks pregnant and experiencing domestic violence. “I had my abortion at 12 weeks and I have also been in an abusive relationship,” Wydrzyńska said. “I know what it means to be in this situation. Helping her was my first human response.”
The woman who contacted Wydrzyńska had previously tried to travel to Germany to get an abortion, but had been stopped by her husband. Wydrzyńska said she realized they were “running out of time” and directly sent the woman abortion pills she kept in her home. When the package arrived, the woman’s husband called the police, ultimately leading her to miscarry out of distress. Over a year later, police came to Wydrzyńska’s home, confiscated her abortion pills and the computers of her and her children, and ultimately charged her with illegally aiding an abortion.
Wydrzyńska, who has been involved in abortion rights activism for 15 years and created the first chatroom in Poland where people could share information about how to obtain safe abortion, first joined ADT in 2019. She says she fears the government will “want to make an example out of me and send me to jail, maybe even for years.”
Since Poland’s near-total abortion ban took effect last year, at least two Polish women have died from pregnancy-related complications after doctors fearing criminalization refused to provide abortion care that could have saved their lives. One of the women, a mother of two children, died in January after being forced to carry a dead fetus for over a week.
The stories of Wydrzyńska and the woman she tried to help both reflect how abortion bans build upon and worsen gender-based violence. In the US, research has shown seeking and being unable to get an abortion places someone at substantially greater risk of experiencing long-term abuse. Another study found at least 10% of people who seek abortion are specifically trying to escape an abusive partner. Abortion bans compound the trauma of intimate partner abuse, sometimes forcing people to carry pregnancies from an abuser against their will, and in Wydrzyńska’s case, even criminalizing them.
In the US, criminalization of pregnancy outcomes—including self-managed abortion with pills—is on the rise, and abortion bans that target not just abortion providers but anyone who helps someone get an abortion are spreading across the country, most recently in Idaho. Wydrzyńska’s looming trial in Poland presents a harrowing message about what could lie ahead, for both Polish and American abortion rights activists.