The trial for Justyna Wydrzynska, a Polish women’s rights activist who mailed abortion pills to a pregnant domestic abuse victim in 2020, has begun, the German outlet Deutsche Welle reported on Wednesday morning from Warsaw. Wydrzynska, who’s charged with illegally aiding an abortion, faces up to three years of prison, as her trial comes nearly two years after Poland enacted its total abortion ban.
In March, she told The Guardian she fears the government will “want to make an example out of me and send me to jail, maybe even for years.” Notably, even before Poland’s abortion ban took effect in January 2021, laws dating back to the 1990s prohibited “aiding an abortion.”
“The Polish state is misogynistic,” Wydrzynska told DW outside the courthouse on Wednesday. “I’ve done nothing illegal. I helped a woman in need by sharing my own abortion pills with her. It isn’t punishable to help someone in need. I did not talk her into getting an abortion, nor did I accompany her.”
The Polish law that prohibits “aiding an abortion” has primarily criminalized abortion providers and not patients, according to the Guardian. And Wydrzynska’s activist group Abortion Dream Team (ADT), which helps Polish women get abortion care, has evaded criminalization by merely referring callers to international groups that mailed medication abortion. But when the covid pandemic began in 2020, this was no longer an option due to restrictions on international mail. Around this time, Ania (this is not her real name), a young woman with an abusive partner, called ADT, and Wydrzynska told DW she made a difficult decision: “When I heard about her situation, I decided to help and sent her pills that I had purchased for my own use.”
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“Ania already had one child with her husband but she didn’t want a second because she felt oppressed in her relationship,” Wydrzynska said. “Several years ago, I was in a similar situation. I already had three children and was trapped in a toxic marriage. When I became pregnant again, I realized that I no longer wanted to have a fourth child with my husband, so I aborted it.” Wydrzynska told the Guardian in February that “helping [Ania] was my first human response.” In the U.S., about 10 percent of people who seek abortion care are specifically trying to escape an abusive partner; being unable to get an abortion places someone at a substantially greater risk of long-term abuse.
Wydrzyńska said that before Ania reached out to ADT, she tried to travel to Germany to get an abortion, but was stopped by her abusive husband, who is reportedly a Catholic activist. Since Ania was already close to 12 weeks pregnant, which ADT recommends as the cut-off for safe use of abortion pills, Wydrzyńska said she realized they were “running out of time” and directly sent the woman the abortion pills she kept in her home for herself. When the package arrived, Ania’s husband called the police; Ania ultimately miscarried the pregnancy from distress. Over a year later, Wydrzyńska was confronted by police at her home. They confiscated her abortion pills and computers and lodged criminal charges against her.
DW reports that Wydrzyńska’s trial is set to wrap in February, and both Ania and Ania’s activist husband will likely be called in as witnesses. Even amid her ongoing court hearings, Wydrzyńska told DW she’s still helping pregnant people who contact ADT seeking help. “When women call, we start with the most important question: How far along in your pregnancy are you?” Wydrzyńska said. If callers are past 12 weeks, they’re often referred to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, or the Netherlands for procedural abortion, where ADT has organizers on the ground to support Polish abortion seekers.
“The Polish government is forcing women to travel thousands of kilometers abroad in order to have abortion,” Wydrzyńska told DW. Of course, Poland’s abortion ban has failed to write abortion out of existence. In 2021, 34,000 Polish people reportedly sought help getting abortions from organizations like ADT.
The country’s ban has only created greater danger, directly resulting in at least two deaths. The ban technically allows exceptions in the case of rape or threats to the life of the pregnant person, but those have had little practical effect. In January, a Polish woman died when doctors were too afraid of facing prison time to intervene, forcing her to carry a dead fetus for a week, which led to a sepsis infection. Similarly in the U.S., most post-Roe v. Wade bans threaten providers with prison time, while criminal charges for pregnant people for their pregnancy outcomes and self-managed abortion have been on a sharp rise for years. And, as in Poland, the consequences of these restrictions on doctors are steep.
An Indiana doctor who provided abortion care to a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio was immediately investigated and terrorized by the state government. U.S. doctors have been forced to deny care to cancer patients and patients with skull-less, entirely nonviable fetuses, requiring these individuals to travel long distances for urgently needed care. Before Roe even fell, civilly enforced abortion bans prohibiting people from helping others get abortions spread like a rash across the country.
Just as Wydrzyńska’s trial is the first of its kind in Poland, here in the U.S., we’re continually navigating new legal territory around abortion access and what will and won’t land someone in prison. Ultimately, it’s the most vulnerable, like the abuse victims and survivors whom Wydrzyńska has tried to help, who are at the greatest risk.