Justyna Wydrzyńska, 47, a mother of three who has been helping women access abortions for more than 15 years, is due to stand trial in Poland this week for breaking the country’s strict abortion law.
She could be jailed for up to three years if convicted of providing abortion pills to a pregnant woman.
In February 2020, Wydrzyńska, founder of Poland’s first abortion information exchange chat room and co-founder of the pro-choice advocacy organization Abortion Dream Team (ADT), was contacted by a 12 weeks pregnant woman living under domestic violence. .
It was the start of the coronavirus pandemic when the Polish postal service announced that international deliveries could be affected.
“The woman desperately wanted an abortion. She had previously tried to travel to Germany for the procedure but was stopped by her abusive husband,” Wydrzyńska told Al Jazeera in a video call interview.
“Her story touched my heart, it was similar to what I had experienced in 2006,” recalls Wydrzyńska, who was also 12 weeks pregnant and living under domestic violence when she decided to get herself abort.
Wydrzyńska took the risk and sent abortion pills via Polish Post. “Of course I helped her; I wouldn’t be a human if I hadn’t,” Wydrzyńska said.
The police showed up at the woman’s home the day the packet of pills, which also contained Wydrzyńska’s contact details, arrived. She had a miscarriage due to stress.
According to Wydrzyńska, the woman’s husband had called the police.
“I don’t know why he called the police, maybe he wanted to punish the woman. All I know is that he didn’t know who sent the pills,” said Wydrzyńska, whose house was raided 16 months later. Polish police confiscated the personal abortion pills she had in her home as well as her children’s laptop.
On April 8, Wydrzyńska is due on trial for helping to terminate her pregnancy, which violated Article 152.2 of the Polish Penal Code. If found guilty, she faces up to three years in prison.
“Justyna W is also charged with possession of unauthorized drugs for the purpose of bringing them into the market,” the National Prosecutor’s Office press office told Al Jazeera in a statement.
Those seeking access to abortion in Poland have faced strict laws for decades.
Before January 2021, a pregnancy could be terminated if the fetus was seriously damaged, if the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape, and in situations where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the life or health of the woman. danger.
On January 27, 2021, the decision of the Polish Constitutional Court entered into force, which concluded that the grounds of “serious and irreversible fetal malformation or incurable disease threatening the life of the foetus” were unconstitutional.
Previously, more than 90% of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions performed each year in Poland were for this reason, according to Human Rights Watch.
At least two women have died because of tougher anti-abortion laws.
“Many women still believe that having an abortion is a criminal act in Poland when it is not. We stress this again and again – having an abortion is not a criminal act in itself, but helping someone to perform an abortion can be criminalized,” said Katarzyna Szwed, lawyer and member of Wydrzyńska’s legal team, at Al Jazeera.
“Wydrzyńska’s case shows how absurd the anti-aid law is: she is being punished for helping with something that is legal,” she said.
Szwed says the current abortion assistance law is vague.
“We have no idea what activities human rights activists can and cannot do,” she said.
The penal code, which regulates assisted abortion, states that it is illegal to assist someone to perform an abortion without explaining what is meant by assistance.
“Imagine having a speeding by-law, which says you’ll be fined if you drive too fast without explaining what the speed limit is,” Szwed said.
“You have a state that says: Yes, you can have an abortion, but we won’t give you information on how to get it, and we’ll tell everyone around you that it’s a misdemeanor. help you. It creates a huge chilling effect: anyone who helps you could technically end up in court,” she said.
Basic reproductive care
According to Dutch-based pro-choice activist Kinga Jelińska, the Polish state has failed to provide basic reproductive care.
“The responsibility for women’s reproductive health rests with activist and feminist groups. It is us who follow the abortion guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), while the Polish state does nothing,” she told Al Jazeera.
Jelińska views the charges against Wydrzyńska as contrary to international recommendations.
“On the one hand, we have the WHO guidelines, which recommend community care providers, like Justyna Wydrzyńska. On the other hand, we have criminal charges issued by the public prosecutor. Therefore, we are being punished for providing aid that the state has not provided,” Jelińska said, drawing a parallel with the current refugee crisis.
“We ask for the same values of solidarity and empathy that the Polish authorities have shown to the millions of refugees fleeing war in Ukraine,” she said.
Another abortion activist and doula, Agata Adamczuk, believes Wydrzyńska’s case will strengthen the pro-choice movement in Poland.
“We are going to work harder, bolder and stronger. I see tremendous solidarity and brotherhood that exploded within the movement after learning about Wydrzyńska’s case. We are so angry with the Polish government for harassing activists and women in general,” she told Al Jazeera.
Like Wydrzyńska, Adamczuk’s work was inspired by her own experience of abortion research.
“Three years ago I was pregnant, scared and didn’t know where to turn for help. Justyna Wydrzyńska gave me the strength to talk about my own experience. She taught me to help others and empowered a whole movement. She is the mother of abortion in Poland and I will forever admire her,” she said.