Guilty for helping in abortion

Freedom Lecture
Justyna Wydrzyńska
My name is Justyna Wydrzyńska and I have been helping with abortions in Poland for 17 years. On March 14, 2023, I was found guilty by a Polish court of “helping in abortion”. I was convicted for sending my own set of abortion pills to Ania. It was the beginning of the pandemic, Ania was already 12 weeks pregnant and she couldn’t go abroad. She wrote in e-mails that she would terminate these pregnancies regardless of whether we helped her or not. She was desperate and emphasized that the unwanted pregnancy was taking away her strength and will to live, and that she was trapped in the house by her partner. I sent her my abortion pills, but she couldn’t use them because her abusive partner reported her to the police, who came to her house and took the pills. This is how we got caught.
Polish activist Justyna Wydrzynska (C) is seen at the district court in Warsaw as she came for the next hearing in her case where she is accused of giving abortion assistance on March 14, 2023. Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

The trial lasted 12 months. It was a very difficult year for me; I had 7 court hearings, and I knew from the get-go that there was a minimal chance for a fair verdict.  The judge on the case was a political opponent. In recent years in Poland the independent judiciary was dismantled by the right-wing populist government.  The day of the verdict, the judge got a major promotion from the minister of justice. Additionally, an ultra-Catholic organization of fundamentalist lawyers joined the case to represent the interests of the fetus and his ancestors.  Pure absurdity – because a fetus has no legal rights under the  Polish law. This trial was a farce, a judicial harassment, an attempt to exhaust me and my activist colleagues by draining our resources – our time, our money, our mental and our emotional energy. 

I am glad that the first stage of the case is now behind me. So what is next?  I am currently waiting for the hearing in the appeal court. And in my daily life, I just continue to help with abortions. Nothing much has changed for the activists. And if there is any silver lining to the last year – I would hope that due to the campaign around my case and so many media interviews, more people know about safe abortion and there is even more political agitation around abortion in Poland. 

Abortion Without Borders

On a daily basis, my work was and still is to answer the phone of the Abortion Without Borders hotline. Every day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. people can call +48 22 29 22 597 and get abortion support. Abortion Without Borders is a feminist grassroot initiative of 9 European groups to help people to get the abortion pills so that they can do their abortions at home, or to help them travel abroad especially in the second and third trimester of pregnancy, by arranging clinical procedures, travel, accommodation in countries where later abortion care is available and very importantly, paying for it. 

We are not theoreticians – we provide practical assistance in abortions.  We advise where to order safe pills, how to prepare for a medical abortion, what will happen during it, and we guide people through the entire process. Most people in Poland just use pills at home.

In the last two years 2,000 people went  to a foreign clinic for a surgical abortion, with our help. Actually, mostly came here –   to the Netherlands.

As Abortion Without Borders, over the last two years alone, we have helped over 100,000 people from Poland gain access to safe abortion. In all of 2021, the Polish state provided 107 abortions in total. We, Abortion without Borders,  support 107 abortions every day, as many each day as the state provides in a whole year. 

It is a well-known fact that Poland, along with Malta, has the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe. We used to have legal abortion up until 1993, when abortion rights were taken away as a “thank you” gesture to the Catholic church and Pope John Paul II, for fighting communism. Just like that – one day, women’s bodies and autonomy were traded away.  And two years ago, the Constitutional Court, politicized by the government, banned abortion even in the case of fetal defects. 

In the formal healthcare system in Poland it is virtually impossible to get abortions. 

Every week we receive stories of more women who tried to have abortions in a Polish hospital. They are treated in a hostile and patronizing manner by the Polish doctors. Ukrainian women who are now in Poland are asking us “Why isn’t it normal like it was in Ukraine?” Women are dismissed with the words “not here, go to  another hospital” but are not given any concrete referral. Poland is a country with a long history of obstetric violence, where most gynecologists and obstetricians still conduct medicine as if it is a master and servant relationship.  

Obstetric violence and fetus-centered medicine

Doctors call the police on their patients. At Abortion Without Borders, we sometimes receive calls from terrified pregnant women who are in hospitals because of a  risk of sepsis. Doctors wait until the fetus dies “naturally” before taking any action. But  there is no possibility to save the fetus in the first place; those fetuses are too young to survive. This is how Iza, Agnieszka and recently Dorota died. Their deaths were completely unnecessary, because coward doctors choose to …. torture us – and wait till the fetus dies even though the woman is likely to die first. 

Ironically, there are some amazing younger doctors who know the new standards and want to provide abortions, but they often are silenced, penalized, ridiculed and even forced to work abroad. We stand strongly with them.  Recently, a doctor from a Polish hospital contacted us. She asked us to organize a trip to a Dutch clinic for her to learn modern methods of abortion in the second trimester. 

Because of a very real health risk to women in Polish hospitals, stemming from negligence in providing care, lack of standards and deeply rooted stigma, whenever we can, we send women with longer pregnancies to the clinics mostly in the Netherlands, but also Germany, Belgium, England, France, the Czech Republic or Austria. 

Poland exports the problem – second trimester abortions happen abroad, mostly in The Netherlands

YES, we export the problem, because it’s too risky to trust that it would be handled locally. Women are almost always pleasantly surprised by how humanely and nicely they were treated here. We need a deep pro-patient reform in our healthcare. Until then the trauma of interactions with the local healthcare, where you have to beg for abortions and can be mistreated is prevented by exporting the problem. 

But those trips constitute only 1% of all abortions that we help arrange. Only a percentage, because there is a simpler, more available method of terminating an unwanted pregnancy, especially in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. A method recommended by the World Health Organization: non-invasive; safe, safer than tooth extraction, paracetamol, or even a Viagra tablet… A method that, according to the WHO, does not require a doctor, or an ultrasound, and can be done at home by the pregnant person themselves. This method is an abortion with pills.

Self-managed abortions with pills – the feminist revolution

Despite stereotypes, abortion with pills at home, is in no way a substandard, but equally safe and recommended method as clinical procedures. In essence, self-managed abortion embodies the principles of reproductive justice. It is a practice against the control of various systems of oppression, like the law, the medicine, the costly market for abortions. The feminist movement in countries with restricted access to abortion has embraced this technology. For decades we have been promoting the practice as a communal self-defense strategy against  stigma and criminalization.  The global activist movement for self-managed abortion is not led by doctors, and we  have been building new norms of how we care for each other, with dignity and love. Abortion rights today are not anymore abstract legal solutions or “just healthcare”. Abortion today is mostly about power and engagement. 

Most women in Poland and around the world take those abortion pills to terminate their pregnancies (shows a set of abortion pills), a set of mifepristone and misoprostol or misoprostol alone. They request those pills from many sources, including the Dutch operated non profit called Women Help Women, which mails those medicines to their home address in Poland. 

Years ago, I ended my pregnancy this way too. I learned from my own experience that in Poland women cannot count on the state, doctors or politicians. But they can count on each other. My recent trial exposed me to real repressions that are devastating to me, yet I still believe that any empathetic person would choose to help another woman, even at the risk of their own safety. I know I would do it again. I feel like I’m not guilty. And I don’t say this to sound like a hero. I am deeply ethically repulsed  by the idea of any guilt when you try to support somebody in realizing their human rights.  Voluntarily supporting another woman in need is never a crime. It’s not something any of us should be ashamed of. Helping with abortions is necessary in a country like Poland. We, the activists, are those reducing the harm that the Polish anti-abortion law and stigma have caused us for the last 30 years. 

However, I won’t lie to you: It’s not only in Poland that I could end up in prison for handing over these pills.  To be honest, nearly all European countries, including those that financially support our work or write to the Polish government demanding that the charges be dropped, any of them, could bring such charges against me – for providing abortion drugs without an “appropriate license” and criminalizing the use outside of the of absurdly overregulated abortion care.

Europe, we have a problem! Irrational, unjust laws and over-medicalization everywhere

Even here in the Netherlands – a country associated with liberal abortion law – I could be  prosecuted and convicted for doing just this – handing the pills to somebody else (Justyna hands Kinga the pills, as re-enactment of the crime). And for my colleague it is also not allowed to take those pills on her own, without control and she would be subject to penalty, even though she is herself a competent abortion provider, with 17 years of experience. Yes, have no illusions or doubts, those simple and completely safe acts we just performed in front of you, can be criminalized here.  Old, archaic  regulations are still in place and prevent safe innovations and rational practices.

European legislation and medical practices, not only Polish, but Western European too, are significantly behind scientific knowledge and the abortion guidelines of the World Health Organization.  Almost every country has its own arbitrary conditions that make access to abortion difficult and criminalizes abortion besides some arbitrary exceptions.  The conditions are absurd, inconsistent with scientific knowledge, but above all, inconsistent with the needs of women and human rights standards. Why? Because  access to abortion has never been  just a function of scientific evidence and commitment to human  rights. For access to abortion to thrive, for our abortion wellbeing,  we need change of norms and values in society. 

I am appealing to you: abortion cannot be an element of a political game. When abortion law falls under criminal code, like in Poland or in the Netherlands, it creates dangerous spaces of negotiation, judgements and trade-offs, narrow situations when the law decides who can and cannot do an abortion, how, why and when. Those trade-off and “exceptional situations” are sometimes won by progressive parties, but sometimes they are won by misogynist fanatics. And who loses the most are pregnant people who need abortions. Abortion laws and archaic over-medicalized  practices  are not about commitment to scientific evidence, very clear guidelines of the WHO against any restrictions,  or human right standards. Abortion access is politicized and laws and medical practices  are about PROFIT and POWER, protected through the marriage of over-medicalization and criminalization.  And, believe me, there is a lot of profit and power to gain from abortion stigma and from not giving abortion back to common people. 

Decriminalization of abortion is a must

I have the honor to  stand here in front of you  today,  and I feel it is my responsibility to call for total decriminalization of abortion. Human rights matters, and simple, safe technologies CANNOT be part of any criminal code. We deserve better.  We can do better, and what is now in Europe is not good enough. We deserve full respect for our bodily autonomy. Join the campaign to decriminalize abortion. We have not only moral right to demand decriminalization but also evidence to back up this need.

My trail in Poland showed  that populist governed Poland has a big appetite to prosecute. Perhaps here in Holland, fortunately,  there is no political appetite yet to prosecute, but my own trial or what has happened in the United States with the overturn of Roe versus Wade should be a cautionary tale for all of us. 

We, at Abortion Without Borders, are often asked by people in Europe how they can help. We appreciate a lot this interest. International solidarity and support truly helped me during my trial. The Netherlands is a very special place to me. I think few Dutch people realize how crucial and essential the self-organizing of feminists in the Netherlands is for abortion in Poland. You should be proud. I am very proud and grateful for my colleagues here. 

Please allow me and also forgive me for being very straightforward in my ask.  I am a practitioner and I speak from the perspective of real concrete needs of people who need abortions.

Help needed

Abortion abroad cost a lot of money

Firstly, and maybe most obviously – abortion care abroad costs a lot of money. As Abortion Without Borders, we have spent over PLN 2 million, that is about  500 000 Euro on travel for women. When people go abroad, mostly to Holland, and concretely to Amsterdam and to Haarlem, we need to pay the clinics, because that is how the system is organized here. Usually more than 1500 Euro per individual, for travel and the procedure is required. Those who travel are supported logistically and financially by the Amsterdam based collective – Abortion Network Amsterdam, as well as the newly founded SAFE;  both of those groups are members of Abortion Without Border operating from Holland. In the past we received financial support not only from individual donors, but also from some European countries.  One of them was Belgium – on the initiative of the Minister for Equality. Such support goes beyond the simple matter of money. It gives a clear sign that in Europe abortion access is considered a matter of women’s human rights.. Truth be told, we need more of this support. Every day, at least 7 women go to foreign clinics with the help of Abortion Without Borders. We do not want people to be forced to continue unwanted pregnancies only because they cannot pay for abortions. 

However, while 7 women travel every day, the majority in Poland –  at least another 100 a day –  take abortion pills. Very many of them are supported by the Dutch operated foundation Women Help Women, which includes Polish immigrants in the Netherlands, who understand the Polish reality and needs and  are fierce advocates alongside those of us based in Poland.

Abortion pills could get to Poland by post from NL safer and quicker

And here comes a second request – they need the possibility to run the mail telehealth service for abortion pills to Poland from here, with the opportunity to purchase and send pills from here, locally in Holland, as a human rights and emergency intervention. They unfortunately do not have this ability now, and they are the single biggest provider giving people safe and dignified abortions.  An MP from Holland, Corinne Ellemeet met with us, and initiated a request to grant them this support as a matter of humanitarian exception. This would make a huge change for all of us, it would make our network and activists safer, the operation more sustainable, cut costs, and as a result allow to help more people much quicker. 

Protection for activists and human rights defenders

And lastly – women human rights defenders in times of backlash on abortion rights need protection. Political protection, solidarity, resources to protect ourselves, and should it come to the worst, possibility to shelter. That is my third and last request. 

Users and providers of self-managed abortion are at danger of prosecution, even though those practices are medically perfectly safe! Decriminalization and protective measures for human rights activists are necessary in today’s Europe. 

I want to thank every individual person and organization who supported the campaign for my freedom. Special thanks to Amnesty International for the campaign on my behalf. The efforts my colleagues and I put into campaigning, go beyond my case.  The support we galvanized,  the alliances we built, the doors we opened, even the speeches I gave, like today, are in honor and for the future protection of all women helping other women in abortions, and all the activists who may soon face prosecution for providing abortion care and standing out to oppression. To all abortion activists out there and women facing judicial harassment and criminalization now and in the future –  I and my colleagues are here for you, we will share all we know and be available to fight if needed.