Justyna Wydrzyńska, 47-year-old mother of three, who has been helping women access abortion for more than 15 years, is set to face trial in Poland this week for violating the country’s strict abortion law.
She could be imprisoned for a maximum of three years if found guilty of providing abortion-inducing tablets to a pregnant woman.
In February 2020, Wydrzyńska, the founder of Poland’s first chatroom for exchanging abortion-related information and co-founder of pro-abortion rights advocacy organisation Abortion Dream Team (ADT), was contacted by a woman who was 12 weeks pregnant and living under domestic violence.
It was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when Poland’s postal service made announcements that international deliveries might be affected.
“The woman was desperate to have an abortion. She had previously tried to travel to Germany for the procedure but was stopped by her violent husband,” Wydrzyńska told Al Jazeera in an interview through a video call.
“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 have an abortion.
Wydrzyńska took the risk and sent abortion pills via the Polish post. “Of course, I helped her; I wouldn’t be a human if I hadn’t,” said Wydrzyńska.
Police turned up at the woman’s home the day the package of pills, which also contained Wydrzyńska’s contact details, arrived. She miscarried from stress.
According to Wydrzyńska, the woman’s husband had called the police.
“I do not know why he called the police, maybe he wanted to punish the woman. All I know is that he did not know who had sent the pills,” said Wydrzyńska whose house was raided 16 months later. The Polish police confiscated personal abortion pills she had at home as well as her children’s laptop.
On April 8, Wydrzyńska is to stand trial for assistance in terminating the pregnancy, by which she violated Article 152.2 of the Polish Penal Code. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison.
“Justyna W is also charged with the possession of unauthorised drugs with the aim of introducing them to the market,” the press office of the National Public Prosecutor’s Office told Al Jazeera in a statement.
Those seeking abortion access in Poland have been facing strict laws for decades.
Before January 2021, one could end a pregnancy if the fetus was severely damaged, the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape, and in situations where the continuation of the pregnancy put the woman’s life or health in danger.
On January 27, 2021, the ruling of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal came into effect which found that the grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional.
Previously, more than 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions annually performed in Poland were on this ground, according to the Human Rights Watch.
At least two women have died as a result of the tighter anti-abortion laws.
“Many women still believe that having an abortion is a criminal act in Poland when it is not. We stress this over and over again – having an abortion is not a criminal act in itself, but helping someone perform an abortion can be criminalised,” Katarzyna Szwed, lawyer and member of Wydrzyńska’s legal team, told Al Jazeera.
“Wydrzyńska’s case shows how absurd the anti-help law is: She is being punished for helping with something that is legal,” she said.
Szwed says the current law about abortion assistance is vague.
“We have no idea what activities human rights activists can and cannot do,” she said.
The criminal code, which regulates abortion aid, states that it is illegal to help someone perform an abortion without explaining what is meant by aid.
“Imagine you had a speeding regulation, which states that you will be fined if you drive too fast without explaining what the speed limit is,” said Szwed.
“You have a state that says: Yes, you may have an abortion, but we will not give you information on how to get it, and we will tell everyone around you that it is a criminal offence to help you. This creates an immense chilling effect: anyone who helps you could technically end up in court,” she said.
Basic reproductive care
According to the Netherlands-based pro-abortion rights activist Kinga Jelińska, the Polish state has failed to deliver basic reproductive care.
“The responsibility for women’s reproductive health is on activist and feminist groups. We are the ones following the abortion guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO), while the Polish state does nothing,” she told Al Jazeera.
Jelińska views the charges against Wydrzyńska as contradictory to international recommendations.
“On one hand, we have the guidelines of the WHO, which recommends community care providers, like Justyna Wydrzyńska. On the other hand, we have criminal charges issued by the Public Prosecutor. Hence, we are being punished for delivering aid that the state failed to provide,” said Jelińska, drawing parallels to the current refugee crisis.
“We ask for the same values of solidarity and empathy that Polish authorities have shown to the millions of refugees escaping the war in Ukraine,” she said.
Another abortion activist and doula, Agata Adamczuk, believes that Wydrzyńska’s case will strengthen the pro-abortion rights movement in Poland.
“We will work harder, bolder and louder. I see tremendous solidarity and sisterhood that exploded inside the movement after learning about Wydrzyńska’s case. We are so incredibly angry at 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 seeking an abortion.
“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 how to help others and empowered an entire movement. She is the mother of abortion in Poland, and I will forever look up to her,” she said.