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Polish abortion activist’s trial hints at a post-Roe future in U.S.

Justyna Wydrzynska faces up to three years in prison under Poland’s strict abortion law

Justyna Wydrzynska, co-founder of Abortion Dream Team, shares women’s stories during a protest in Warsaw last year. (NurPhoto/Getty Images)

A Polish activist accused of illegally giving a woman abortion pills appeared in a Warsaw court Thursday in a first-of-its-kind case that could be a harbinger of what is to come in a United States without Roe v. Wade.

Justyna Wydrzynska, a Polish human rights activist who co-founded Abortion Dream Team, which provides people with information about how to safely terminate their pregnancies, faces three years in prison for helping a woman who was seeking an abortion.

She is accused of giving abortion pills in 2020 to a woman identified as Ania, whose husband was allegedly abusive.

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In a brief hearing Thursday, she answered questions on her organization before proceedings were adjourned for a second time after Ania’s husband failed to show up in court. The courtroom was packed with observers, including representatives from the embassies of Canada, Norway and the United States.

Abortion rights in Europe and elsewhere have been thrown into sharper focus since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month. While the Biden administration has said abortion pills are authorized as safe and effective for use in all 50 states, their provision to people in states where abortion is now illegal is a gray area.

Speaking to reporters and supporters outside the court, Wydrzynska smiled and blew kisses. Such cases are becoming a “real possibility” in the United States, she said. “People will always be finding ways to help other people, and medication abortion is available in the U.S., so it can absolutely happen there as well.”

“I am angry,” she said after the hearing, calling it a waste of time. In remarks to reporters directed at Ania’s husband, she said, “You were so brave when you called the police. Be brave now, too, and show up to court.”

She added: “Once I leave the court, I am turning on my phone and will continue taking calls from people in need, informing them how and where to get an abortion.”

Poland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, in effect a near total ban. In 2020, a court banned abortions in cases of fetal abnormalities — one of the few remaining exceptions under which abortion was allowed. It remains legal to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape or for which there is a risk to the woman’s life or health.

In practice, however, abortions under those circumstances are still hard to come by: Rape victims must obtain a certificate from a prosecutor to access the procedure, and many doctors are afraid to provide care to pregnant people experiencing obstetric emergencies out of fear of violating the law.

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A 30-year-old pregnant woman, Izabela Sajbor, died of septic shock at a Polish hospital in September after medical workers refused to treat her until her fetus died, her lawyer said. At least one other woman has died under similar circumstances.

Activists in Poland and abroad have stepped in to fill the gap by shipping Polish women abortion pills from other countries in Europe or helping them travel to places with looser restrictions to obtain surgical abortions. The activist groups have coalesced into a transnational network called Abortion Without Borders — the coalition Ania, the woman whose story is at the center of Wydrzynska’s trial, found online when she was seeking an abortion.

While it is legal for a pregnant woman to give herself an abortion in Poland — by taking pills, for example — helping someone else access abortion is prohibited. Activists in Poland have tried to operate within the law and protect the people they help from harassment, including by taking measures to cover their digital tracks. The organization Women Help Women, which is part of the network, ships pills across Poland’s borders to avoid legal ramifications. All told, Abortion Without Borders has helped tens of thousands of Polish women to obtain abortions since the court ruling in October 2020.

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Ania wished to have an abortion, but threats from her husband prevented her from traveling to a clinic in Germany, according to a briefing on the case published by the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Wydrzynska has spoken out about her own story of surviving domestic violence.

When Ania contacted Abortion Without Borders in February 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, international mail had become less reliable, so Wydrzynska sent Ania a package of abortion pills from her house. Ania’s husband reportedly found the pills and called police, who confiscated them. Ania said the stress of the police investigation led her to miscarry.

In June 2021, more than a year after Wydrzynska provided the pills, police searched Wydrzynska’s home and confiscated medicines, a computer, flash drives and mobile phones belonging to her and her children. A Warsaw prosecutor charged Wydrzynska in November with facilitating an abortion and with possession of unauthorized medicines. Police had discovered mifepristone and misoprostol, common abortion medications also used for other purposes, in Wydrzynska’s home, and the prosecutor argued that two of the confiscated drugs were not authorized for use in Poland.

The proceedings are a test of both the country’s abortion law and the independence of its judiciary, activists say.

The charges against Wydrzynska have drawn international condemnation. Nearly 100 members of the European Parliament signed a letter to the Polish government, calling for them to be dropped.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe ruling, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in early July urging E.U. member states — including Poland — to remove barriers to abortion access. It also called for the right to abortion to be enshrined in the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Special rapporteurs from the United Nations, meanwhile, voiced concern that the charges “appear intended to punish her work as a human rights defender and to instill fear among all of those who are supporting Polish women in accessing safe abortion care, and who are already working in a hostile environment.”

Polish authorities responded by pointing to a pharmaceutical law prohibiting unauthorized marketing of drugs, which they said includes “both paid and unpaid transfer” of medicines.

Activists worry that the prosecution, the first against an abortion rights activist for breaking Poland’s law, could make their work even more challenging.

Wydrzynska’s case “is a mind-blowing example of how the law actually doesn’t work and how violent it is in criminalizing help,” Zuzanna Dziuban, an activist with an Abortion Without Borders affiliate that helps Polish women travel to clinics in Berlin, told The Washington Post this spring.

Wydrzynska previously told The Post the proceedings have not deterred her from activism.

“I have not stopped doing my job and I will not stop doing it,” she said. “I’m not really afraid, and I know my colleagues know how important our work is and how important it is that people deserve to have the right to the proper information.”

Jeznach reported from Warsaw and Morris from Berlin.