WARSAW, Poland – The woman said she needed an abortion. She said she had already tried to leave Poland to get one, but her abusive husband had stopped her, threatening to go to the police. Across the world, a new virus was closing borders, restricting travel and trapping people inside their homes, and Justyna Wydrzyńska, sensing a chilling desperation, decided to send the woman a packet of abortion pills that she’d been keeping for her own personal use.
A year passed. Then out of nowhere, police arrived at Wydrzyńska’s door to search her home – some officers finding more than they anticipated.
“He opened one drawer and there was underwear, and then he closed it…I have a bunch of vibrators,” Wydrzyńska says with a laugh. “It was really funny. Now I know where to hide things.”
Wydrzyńska, 47, hasn’t lost her sense of humour, but her situation is serious. In July, she will be the first activist in Europe to face a criminal trial under Poland’s incredibly strict abortion laws, which permit the termination of a pregnancy only in the case of rape and incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger, though both can be hard to prove.
Wydrzyńska is charged with “helping with an abortion” and “possession of medicines without authorisation for the purpose of introducing them into the market” for sending another woman abortion pills. If she is found guilty, she faces up to three years in prison. Her trial comes at a time when abortion rights are facing a renewed threat: Any day now, the US Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that gave women in the US the right to abortion care nearly 50 years ago. Without Roe v. Wade, 26 US states are certain or likely to ban abortion. In the last 25 years, more than 50 countries have increased access to abortion, while just three – Poland, the US, and Nicaragua – have scaled it back. Observers and activists are keenly watching the outcome of Wydrzyńska’s case as another indication of the growing attack on abortion.
Poland is ground zero in the battle for abortion rights in Europe, where abortion is largely legal apart from the island nation of Malta and Poland. Activists here have been working within the confines of Poland's extremely restrictive abortion laws for the past three decades, but in 2020 things became particularly bad after a court removed one of the most significant exceptions allowing abortion to legally take place. It was a move that sparked massive protests and created a hugely different reality for activists like Wydrzyńska. As a consequence of Poland’s recent restriction of abortion laws, at least two women have died. Last November, a woman named Izabela lost her life after doctors refused to remove a foetus without enough amniotic fluid to survive, eventually leading to fatal sepsis. The day before she died, Izabela texted her mother saying, “Because of the abortion law, I have to stay in bed and they can’t do anything.” In January, a woman known as Agnieszka T died from suspected sepsis after doctors refused to remove a foetus after its heartbeat had stopped and a twin foetus was still alive.
The dangers facing women at almost every stage of pregnancy in Poland’s anti-abortion climate – and the strong tactics of its ultra-Catholic anti-abortion groups – has bolstered the important work carried out by Wydrzyńska and the organisation she co-founded and volunteers for, Aborcyjny Dream Team (Abortion Dream Team in English, or ADT). While their work is vast and wide-reaching, Wydrzyńska and other volunteers occupy a simple office space – one small room, to help thousands and thousands of women coming forward every year for help. “THANK GOD FOR ABORTION”, reads one sign inside the ADT's office, on the top floor of an unassuming building in Warsaw. “Abortion rights are human rights,” reads another.
It’s here that Wydrzyńska has volunteered since 2016 to raise awareness about abortion, provide emotional support, and help coordinate access to abortion via other charities. Through ADT’s helpline, Wydrzyńska and the other volunteers help around 1,000 people a month with advice and around 20 people a day with info on how to get medical abortions. With a large social media presence, they are often bombarded with messages on Facebook and Instagram, where they also provide advice.
“We mostly focus on destigmatising abortion,” says Wydrzyńska, speaking from ADT’s offices on a sunny June day. “But ADT is very popular on social media, so we receive a lot of messages and questions about how to do abortion and what is happening when you take pills. Sometimes people just need information on how to order pills, and they manage everything by themselves. Sometimes they want to be supported through the whole process. Some of them want to travel to the Czech Republic or Slovakia or Germany and really need our help with organising everything, even financial support.”
ADT’s comprehensive support is a necessity. There has been limited access to abortion in Poland throughout the 20th and 21st century as a result of a strong Roman Catholic tradition and little separation between church and state. In the 1970s and 80s during Communist rule, access to abortion was at its highest, with women sometimes travelling from more-restrictive European countries to Poland for an abortion. In the 1990s, however, after the fall of the Communist government, abortion was once again banned, with some exceptions. Since 2015, the ruling, right-wing populist party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice in English, or PiS) has endeavoured to restrict abortion further, along with other limitations to reproductive rights, like reducing access to contraception.
Up until 2020, abortion was only legal in three cases: when the pregancy was from incest or rape; when there is a risk to the mother’s life; and when there was a foetal abnormality – the latter of which made up over 95 percent of legal Polish abortions. In October 2020, foetal abnormality was removed as an exemption following a ruling by a Polish court, sparking massive street protests and a huge surge in calls to abortion helplines. This month, the Polish government announced it will track those who are pregnant to further police people’s fertility.
There’s been an explosive and powerful response to Poland’s erosion of reproductive rights both nationally and internationally, with organisations carefully skirting the edges of legality. While Polish women who access abortions are not criminalised – such as in countries like El Salvador, where women have been sentenced to 30 years – anyone “providing” abortion outside the exceptions is breaking the law. ADT has managed to avoid breaking Polish law for years by coordinating with an international network of abortion activists, such as Netherlands-based Women Help Women, which will send abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol from outside the country to those in need.
When Wydrzyńska directly sent pills from her own house to the woman, who has not publicly been named, she crossed for the first time into grey legal territory now being exploited by authorities seemingly hoping to make an example of her. Wydrzyńska's mistake, she jokes, was leaving her contact details on the package, which was eventually found by the woman’s husband and reported to the police. Despite never being able to take the pills, the woman eventually miscarried from the stress of the situation, Wydrzyńska says.
Wydrzyńska’s trial is scheduled to begin on the 14th of July in Warsaw. The hearing was meant to take place in April, but it was delayed after the husband, who has also not been named, did not show up to court.
Irrespective of the risks, Wydrzyńska sees her actions as a no-brainer.
“She was really begging [and] was telling me that she would do everything that to stop the pregnancy,” says Wydrzyńska. “This is why I decided to send the pills, because I also have experience with domestic violence. My husband was also an abuser and a very controlling person.”
“I knew exactly what she was feeling, and what probably she had in her mind,” she adds. “I knew that she is so desperate that she will do even unsafe things, so I really had no choice, no other choice than just share the pills.”
Despite the looming trial, Wydrzyńska is relaxed: At her office, she cuddles her dog, chuckles about the situation, and says she wants to face the woman’s husband in court.
“It doesn't affect the way I work,” she says. “I am much calmer. I really want to look at the face of him. I hope the media and everybody will ask him, ‘Why did you call the police for your own wife?’”
Wydrzyńska's case is rare in Europe, and due to the unprecedented nature of the trial, it’s hard to predict what the outcome will be. While ADT’s team expects a probationary sentence of six months, Wydrzyńska’s lawyers are cautious. Technically she could be handed a three-year prison sentence.
“I wouldn't be so quick about what we are expecting,” says Katarzyna Szwed, one of Wydrzyńska’s lawyers. “The six-month probation thing is the most common sentence in criminal cases like this, but this case is special as Justyna is an activist and human rights defender. We also have a lot of media attention, including international media, so this is something that might affect the case both ways.”
“It is hard to predict because it is the first case when someone who has helped with abortion is an activist,” says Sabrina Mana-Walasek, another lawyer for ADT. “We are afraid that the judge could use Justyna as an example and punish her because of activism.”
Although Wydrzyńska has admitted to police that she did send the pills to the woman, her lawyers argue that this does not mean she aided an abortion – wording meant to restrict medical professionals from giving abortions. If she is found not guilty, it could set a positive legal precedent for those fighting for legal abortions.
“We want this case to show three things,” says Szwed. “One, if you decide to stop the pregnancy, you are not prosecuted. The second thing is that we should really support each other and we shouldn't be afraid. The third thing is that [abortion] shouldn't be a crime.”
In a coffee shop in Warsaw, Natalia Broniarczyk – another ADT activist – sips a juice. She is one of the three faces of ADT, and is primarily responsible for their TikTok page, where she makes videos that show people how to safely take abortion pills. Broniarczyk became involved in abortion activism after working in sexual health, During this time, she needed an abortion and – despite working in the industry – barely knew how to get help.
Broniarczyk is primarily involved in the communication and social media side of ADT, working to destigmatise abortion.
“After my abortion, I decided to help people,” says Broniarczyk. “I did it in secret for three or four years. I was even meeting people here in this very coffee shop.”
ADT’s original aim was to change the narrative around abortion in Poland. “We decided to be open about our experience,” she says. “It's not about other women. Like, look, this is me, I had an abortion. I have one head, two legs. I'm a normal person and I go to work every day. You can speak to me.”
For Broniarczyk, she feels it could have been herself or any of the other activists getting charged with these offences – Wydrzyńska just was the unlucky one. But, there’s something meaningful and effective in having Wydrzyńska’s story at the front of this debate, says Broniarczyk, when those who seek abortions or help others with them are often painted as outsiders.
“I think that Justyna is the best person to be in front of the court because she's had a normal life,” says Broniarczyk. “She’s a mother, she has had this experience of violence. She's a normal woman. You can imagine her perspective – her life experiences are very common.”
“But it could have been me,” she says. “It was a decision of the group to take this risk, and Justyna just had bad luck.”
If Wydrzyńska is sentenced to prison, it could send shockwaves through Poland, where huge protests and collective actions have defined reactions to the country’s clampdown on abortion rights.
With a prison sentence looming over Wydrzyńska, what motivates her to keep helping women in Poland, and to keep taking risks like that one she took in February 2020?
“There is so much support coming from individuals, and that is a big thing for me because it makes me think that we are doing a really good job,” says Wydrzyńska.
“We shouldn't be afraid of what could happen even if I really do go to jail. We should do our work no matter what. Because if we don't, who will?”