WARSAW, Poland — Abortion advocacy groups in Poland say they’ve been receiving between five and ten calls a day from pregnant Ukrainian refugees seeking help since Russia first invaded Ukraine and people started fleeing for Poland, a country with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
Aborcyjny Dream Team, a grassroots group in Poland that helps women access abortion, is part of the Abortions Without Border collective. One of the group’s organisers, Ryś Olimpia, told VICE World News the collective has received about five calls per day from pregnant people fleeing Ukraine since Feb. 24.
“When the war started in Ukraine, Abortion Dream Team immediately translated all protocols, information about how to get medication, and how to order medication into Russian and Ukrainian,” Olimpia said. “Immediately women started getting in touch.”
“During war, these women and people who are pregnant have found themselves in a situation where they lost their homes, had to flee,” Olimpia said. “This is a really hard moment to be pregnant, so that’s why it makes sense that they’ve started reaching out to us.”
In Poland, almost all abortions are illegal—only people whose lives are threatened by their pregnancies or people who are pregnant because of rape are legally allowed to terminate their pregnancies. Even in extreme circumstances it can be difficult for people to find specialists willing to perform abortions, experts say. Women whose fetuses have severe or irreversible defects aren’t allowed to get abortions.
The morning-after pill is also hard to track down—patients need a prescription from a willing doctor—and it’s often expensive.
Compare that to the situation in Ukraine, where pregnant Polish folks would sometimes travel to access abortions. In Ukraine, women can purchase the morning-after pill over the counter and abortion is legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, women can still access abortions for a number of reasons, including medical and psychological.
“Ukrainians have found their way into a country that’s totally banned abortion,” said Krystyna Kacpura, director of Federacja na rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny, or Federation for Women and Family Planning.
Some Polish anti-abortion groups were even handing out fliers with anti-abortion messaging to refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border. “The biggest threat to peace is abortion,” one viral flier says. “If a woman is allowed to kill her child what’s stopping me or you from killing each other?”
Kacpura said her organization has received about 300 calls from Ukrainian women asking for help, most of whom have asked about abortion access. That’s an average of about 10 women per day since the war started.
The demand has been so overwhelming that Kacpura’s group launched a helpline earlier this week for Ukrainian refugees. It's staffed by a Ukrainian gynaecologist who also fled the war.
“That phone works three times per week, for four hours,” Kacpura said, adding that 500 women’s groups in Ukraine and Poland are aware of the helpline.
Kacpura said that her organisation works with a network of gynaecologists and doctors in Poland who’ve already said they’d help Ukrainians for free. Together, they help women access abortions, abortion pills obtained abroad, morning-after pills, birth control, as well as accompanying doctor oversight.
“We try to pay as much as possible. Sometimes women need help getting to a doctor, paying for medications,” Kacpura said, adding that she hopes they continue to have enough funding to cover such costs.
Abortion Dream Team similarly helps women access abortion, specifically abortion pills, and healthcare. For now, the organization hasn’t worked with Abortions Without Borders to send Ukrainian people abroad to get a clinical abortion, but Olimpia said her network is resourceful and will keep strategizing how to help.
“During the pandemic, women from Abortions Without Border still figured out how to send people abroad... so, really, we’re able to do a lot to help people.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.