Wednesday, 05 April 2023 07:06

Poland Abortion Laws: Repression of Reproductive Rights and Out of Sync Activists

The Abortion Dream Team (from left to right Natalia Broniarczyk, Justyna Wydrzynska, Kinga Jelinska) outside the Warsaw court after Wydrzynska’s conviction. Credit: Abortion Dream Team


BRATISLAVA, Apr 05 (IPS) — “People want the abortion laws here liberalised. Society has changed; even the politicians can see it,” Kinga Jelinska, a Polish reproductive rights activist, says. “In four or five years, I believe, the abortion laws here will be liberalised, because it’s what the people support.”



Jelinska, a member of the Abortion Dream Team (ADT) collective, which provides assistance to women in Poland who need an abortion, spoke to IPS not long after her fellow activist and ADT co-founder Justyna Wydrzynska had been sentenced to eight months community service for giving abortion pills to another woman.


She is disappointed by the ruling but, like her colleague, remains defiant and determined to carry on her work.


“We’re just going to keep going. The court claimed Justyna was ‘guilty of helping’ someone have an abortion. Well, we have to help each other in cases where people are being systematically denied access to care. Without people like Justyna, women are left to take their own decisions , and they may take an unsafe option,” Kinga says.


Wydrzynska’s trial and conviction have, activists such as Jelinska say, highlighted problems connected with abortion access in Poland and the risks women needing the procedure – and those they turn to for advice – often face.


Poland has some of the world’s strictest abortion laws – terminations are only permitted where the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health, or if it results from a criminal act, such as rape or incest – and while not illegal to have an abortion, it is illegal to help someone do so.


Many women in Poland who want an abortion self-administer pills bought online from abroad or travel to neighbouring countries with less restrictive legislation, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, for terminations. Some contact groups like ADT for help. It is not illegal to give out information about abortions, including advice on how to buy pills online.


In February 2020, at the start of the Covid pandemic in Poland, ADT had been contacted by a woman, named Anya*, who was 12 weeks pregnant and desperate. She said she was a victim of domestic violence and was considering going abroad to terminate her pregnancy as the pills she had ordered online were taking too long to arrive.


Wydrzynska decided to give Anya her own pills, but the package she sent was intercepted by Anya’s partner, who reported what had happened to police. Anna later miscarried.


Wydrzynska was convicted of “aiding an abortion” – a crime under Polish law which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison – by a Warsaw court in March 2023 in what is believed to be the first time in Europe that a women’s health advocate has gone on trial for aiding an abortion.


The conviction was immediately condemned by both local and international activists who said the case should never have been brought to court.


“We were disappointed that Justyna was convicted. We are happy that she is not going to jail, but her trial has dragged on for a year, in which time a lot of international organisations, including gynaecologists, said the case should be dropped. It should never have come to trial, and this would never have happened in another country,“ Mara Clarke, co-founder of Supporting Abortions for Everyone, told IPS.


Amnesty International described the court’s ruling as “a depressing low in the repression of reproductive rights in Poland”.


“This ruling is going to have a chilling effect and we are already seeing women who are worried about what they should do if they found themselves in the situation that they need an abortion,” Mikolaj Czerwinski, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International, told IPS.


Others believe the trial was part of a wider campaign to crackdown on women’s rights and those of the minorities such as the LGBTQI community, by the right-wing government and its conservative religious allies.


“The case against Justyna was politically motivated,” said Clarke, pointing out that the judge in the case was promoted on the same as she handed down the verdict, and that the Christian fundamentalist group Ordo Iuris was allowed a role in the trial helping the prosecution.


“Who knows what will come up with next?” she added.


The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has long been accused by critics in Poland and abroad of systematically suppressing women’s rights, and it was instrumental in pushing through a tightening of abortion laws in 2021 which banned abortions even in cases where the foetus was diagnosed with a severe birth defect.


Meanwhile, the European Commission (EC) has raised serious concerns over judicial independence in the country under the PiS with some judicial bodies seen as being under the control of the ruling party.


Czerwinski said that following the trial there were now “questions over the independence of the judiciary in Poland and what impact that might have on women’s rights, and human rights in general, in Poland”.


But while anger remains at Wydrzynska’s conviction, activists such as Jelinska and Clarke believe that the trial has only highlighted how out of touch Poland’s government is with society on abortion laws.


Since the abortion laws was tightened even further in 2021 – a move which was met with massive street protests — surveys have shown strong support for liberalisation of abortion laws. In one poll last November, 70% of respondents backed allowing terminations on demand up to 12 weeks.


“People want access to abortions, public surveys have shown that. We see it too in the work we do every day,” she says, adding that during Wydrzynska’s trial “public opinion was overwhelmingly pro-Justyna.”


In a public opinion poll carried out in February for Amnesty International, 47% of respondents said they would have done the same as Wydrzynska. The survey also found that people were overwhelmingly against punishment for helping to access an abortion in Poland.


Meanwhile, some opposition politicians have suggested they would introduce legislation which would allow for abortion on demand if they get into power, pointing to public support for such a measure.


It is this public support which, Kinga believes, may have stopped the court handing down a jail sentence to the activist.


“This is an election year, and the government knows it would be political suicide to give her a harsher sentence with so many people in favour of liberalising access to abortion,” she explains.


It may also be behind Polish parliament’s rejection in early March of a bill, proposed by an anti-abortion group as a citizen’s legislative initiative under a special parliamentary procedure, which would have criminalised even providing information about abortions. Government MPs voted against it with some reportedly saying they did back it for fear of fuelling protests just months away from elections.


“Even they know that would have been going too far,” said Czerwisnki.


The trial, which was reported extensively in Poland and widely in international media, has also helped raise awareness of the work of groups like ADT and others with some organisations, including the Abortions Without Borders network which has a Polish helpline reporting a three-fold rise in calls since the trial began.


“Justyna’s case put even more focus on the issue and the ways women can access abortion services,” says Kinga.


If the conviction was designed to put activists off their work, it seems to have backfired, said Czerwinski.


“A lot of activists have been re-energised by this because they have seen Justyna and her response to the ruling,” he said. “They are aware of the risks, but at the same time will not stop helping women.”


Wydrzynska has appealed her conviction and insists that she has done nothing wrong. She has also vowed to continue her activism.


Speaking on public radio after her trial, she said: “Even if I should leave the country, I will never stop. In the same way, I know that there are thousands of people who’d do the same for me.” *NOT REAL NAME


IPS UN Bureau Report