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Poland: Activist on trial in Warsaw for aiding abortion

A verdict in the trial of 48-year-old activist Justyna Wydrzynska (center) is expected in February

A verdict in the trial of 48-year-old activist Justyna Wydrzynska (center) is expected in February

It's a gray morning in Warsaw, where a couple dozen police officers have encircled the courthouse with 10 large vehicles. They are here to protect two large demonstrations at what is expected to be a spectacular trial.

Some 50 people have gathered in front of the building in the Polish capital to show their solidarity with Justyna Wydrzynska, a 48-year-old activist from the Abortion Dream Team network who stands accused of aiding and abetting a pregnancy termination. That's against the law in Poland, and carries a sentence of up three years in prison.

A group of six counterprotesters holding up a giant image of an aborted fetus has gathered across the street, their Catholic prayers and calls protesting abortion blast from loudspeakers. Ultimately, however, they are drowned out by the chants and the drumming of Wydrzynska's supporters, some of whom have come from abroad.

Poland's near total ban on abortion

Every abortion case in Poland triggers strong emotions. Beyond Malta, Poland has the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Europe. It's only allowed in cases of rape, or if the health or life of the mother is in danger.

Just two years ago, abortion was also allowed in cases of fetal malformation but the Constitutional Tribunal, which is under the control of the ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) Party, struck that exception from the law. That means severely handicapped children with no chance of survival must nevertheless be carried to term. The legal decision is in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church in Poland.

'Abortion is part of human rights'

"The Polish state is misogynistic," Wydrzynska told DW in front of the courthouse, tears in her eyes but clearly moved by the support of so many people outside the courthouse.

She trembles every time she has to go before the court, but stands by her actions. "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."

Wydrzynska said she would do it again if she had to. She has been fighting for the liberalization of abortion rights in Poland for years. "I'm fighting for human rights and abortion is part of that," she said. Her supporters chant the words that Wydrzynska and her Abortion Dream Team use to bolster women in need of their help: "You'll never walk alone."

Polish women forced to seek abortions abroad

After her court appearance, the abortion activist returns to everyday life. Her telephone rings constantly — she's available under an emergency number for several hours almost every day. When she isn't able to pick up the phone, one of her two colleagues at the Abortion Dream Team steps in.

"When women call, we start with the most important question: How far along in your pregnancy are you? We advise using an abortion pill until the 12th week. After that it is better to have surgery," said Wydrzynska. At the moment, most Polish women are forced to travel abroad to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic or the Netherlands for surgical abortions.

Wydrzynska and her Abortion Dream Team, as well as other groups that belong to the umbrella organization Aborcja bez Granic (Abortions without Borders), are in constant contact with helpers in those countries, mostly Polish migrants seeking to help their "sisters" navigate foreign health care systems. "The Polish government is forcing women to travel thousands of kilometers abroad in order to have abortions," said Wydrzynska, with anger in her voice.

Abortion pill illegal in Poland

"I advise women who want to abort with a pill to get in touch with the international women's networks and Then they can have the pill sent to them from abroad. Thankfully the pills arrive in Poland, so most times women can rely on them," said Wydrzynska. Abortion pills containing mifepristone (also known as RU-486), which are available almost everywhere in Europe, cannot be purchased in Polish pharmacies.

For safety reasons it's preferable to have the pills sent from abroad. Despite that, a few years ago Wydrzynska took the risk of sending pills to a women in desperate need of an abortion. In order to protect her identity, she calls the woman Ania.

"Ania called us and spoke with one of my colleagues. When I heard about her situation I decided to help and sent her pills that I had purchased for my own use," she said.

Ania's difficult situation reminded her of her own fate. "Ania already had one child with her husband but she didn't want a second because she felt oppressed in her relationship. 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," she said.

First-of-its-kind trial

When she sent the pills, Wydrzynska also wrote her own address on the envelope as required. Ania's husband, who according to media reports is a Catholic activist, had sought to dissuade his wife from aborting the child. When he discovered the envelope with the pills, he called the police. Shortly thereafter, authorities searched Wydrzynska's apartment and she was soon in the dock, charged with aiding and abetting an abortion.

Now, the unprecedented trial will move forward in January 2023. Ania and her husband will likely be called as witnesses. A verdict is expected in February.

In 2021, some 34,000 Polish women sought help from women's organizations to terminate a pregnancy. Most were able to acquire abortion pills from abroad, though more than 1,500 were forced to travel out of the country to receive a surgical abortion. That same year, 107 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals, 10 times fewer than before the country tightened its abortion laws in 2020.

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton