Photo: Abortion Dream Team
At the start of the pandemic, Anna, a Polish woman, was almost 12 weeks pregnant and the abortion pills she had ordered from abroad had arrived late. Since Poland enforces a near-total ban on abortion, she had hoped to travel to Germany for the procedure, but her husband told her that if she traveled with their young child, he would have her arrested for kidnapping. So Anna called the Abortion Without Borders hotline, a network of groups in Poland and across Europe that arrange abortions for people by helping them order abortion pills to their doorstep or helping them with the cost and foreign travel logistics.
Justyna Wydrzyńska answered Anna’s call. Now 47, Wydrzyńska had been in a similar situation at age 33 with her own controlling husband, whom she has since divorced. Wydrzyńska sent Anna, who said she had suffered domestic violence, a packet of pills from her own medicine cabinet. But Anna’s husband was monitoring his wife’s communications. He called the police, who confiscated Anna’s pills and then searched Wydrzyńska’s house.
Wydrzyńska now faces up to three years in prison for helping Anna terminate her pregnancy and for unauthorized possession of abortion drugs (which are on the World Health Organization’s list of essential drugs) with intend to distribute them in the market. His case, the first in which an activist has been prosecuted for supplying abortion pills in Europe, will go to trial on April 8.
Her case also offers a glimpse of what could happen to those who seek and facilitate abortions in the United States, where lawmakers are focused on restricting and criminalizing the use of abortion pills. Their use has skyrocketed during the pandemic, fueled by the increased use of telemedicine and the lifting of the Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that abortion pills must be given to patients in person. State lawmakers have responded by introducing more than a hundred state-level legal restrictions on medical abortion in the first quarter of 2022 alone, including nine restrictions on shipping abortion pills, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Wydrzyńska is part of the Abortion Dream Team (slogan: “Abortion is awesome”), a group of four Polish activists who, since 2016, have been advising people on how to safely self-manage abortions. She and two of her colleagues, Natalia Broniarczyk and Kinga Jelińska, spoke at the Cup on their work to help people when the medical system fails them. The #IamJustyna campaign is more important than Wydrzyńska’s case alone: it’s about the “thousands of people who manage their own abortions around the world, including in the United States”, notes Jelińska. “What would you do if someone called out to you, desperately, and you were positioned and had the tools to help?” she continued. “Would you be like Justyna?
We met in Poland in 2019, when access to abortion was already extremely limited, with around 1,000 abortions performed in public hospitals each year in a country of 38 million people. Can you tell me what has happened to access to abortion since then?
Kinga Jelinkska: First, you have the pandemic, when home abortions and the self-managed abortion model that we support have actually become very common around the world – not only recommended from a public health perspective, but even the most more reasonable in the circumstances.
And then in Poland, there was the new abortion law restriction in 2020, so that people with fetal malformations were denied care in public hospitals. Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about a very small group of people. The vast majority of abortions are due to women being pregnant and not wanting to be. However, this restriction caused a major outcry and large protests. The protests were extremely supportive of another group we are part of, Abortion Without Borders. What we have noticed is that despite the restriction in the law, paradoxically, many more people have discovered how to perform a safe abortion and what their options are thanks to public protests and solidarity. The hotline number has been spray painted everywhere now.
A hotline for self-managed abortion is spray-painted on a street in Poland.
Photo: Abortion Dream Team
When I attended one of the workshops you gave to teach people about self-managed abortion, one of the people present seemed to surreptitiously record your work. What kinds of interactions have you had with the Polish authorities to date?
Justyna Wydrzynska: During the training you attended, the police were informed and the people who organized it had to go to the police station.
Jelinkska: There was a whole campaign where our faces were put on a billboard that went around Warsaw and other cities with messages about abortion and murder – it was a very heavy response from the anti-abortion side. But we see it as a function of our success: they are only as annoyed with us as we are visible and unmoved by our actions. Sometimes we get letters of inquiry asking us to go to the police, but we see it more as harassment, which makes us anxious all the time. Like, now I have to go back to the district attorney? This is a very common strategy. It costs you time, it costs you resources and it causes you stress.
Natalia Broniarczyk: To be honest, it’s not from the government, but very often it’s an activist from anti-choice organizations who goes to the police with a sticker with our phone number or a picture of our activities. Then you have to go and explain why it’s not “helping” someone to have an abortion. Sometimes the police ask us, informally, “Okay, is it safe? This abortion with pills, is it safe? And we say yes. And they say, “Okay, I’ll save this number for my friends.”
Your colleague Karolina Więckiewicz, the fourth member of the Dream Team, is a lawyer. She told me she believed everything the Dream Team did was legal, and you’ve advised thousands of people to date. Why is Justyna facing charges now? Is it because she went beyond counseling and guidance and helped materially by sending pills in the mail?
Jelinkska: Advice and provision of information resources fall under non-censorship and freedom of information laws as these are the recommendations of the WHO. The #IamJustyna campaign is therefore based on solidarity and on this peer-to-peer tendency among women who seek abortion services because we live in a failed state, which does not want to help you have an abortion. Although there is no official public data on the number of abortions performed in 2021, a newspaper asked the government about it and was informed that there were 414. Doctors are also incredibly useless in this country. Even in cases where a woman’s life was in danger, they did not help in public hospitals. We can’t even believe that they will save our lives. There have been several cases of women who died because doctors refused to perform abortions. So we also want to draw attention to this solidarity because essentially all abortion care in Poland depends on people like Justyna.
Justyna, you had reason to believe that Anna’s husband was very bossy – looking at her emails and texts, rummaging through her purse. Were you afraid he would find out?
Wydrzynska: I hear stories about abortion pills coming in from Women Help Women, an organization that sends pills in the mail, and men sometimes swallow them or put them in the toilet and flush the toilet. I know these stories. I thought it might happen – that he would take the meds off her rather than call the police. I really didn’t think that could happen.
After all the work you have done for so many years, you are now here. Justyna, how are you feeling right now about everything that’s happened?
Wydrzynska: I fear that this case will have a chilling effect on people who need information and support, because they fear that calling or writing to us could be dangerous for us and for them. The campaign is therefore to show that we will not stop working and that we will not be afraid of these accusations. And I’m not sorry about that.