WARSAW — A Polish court convicted a human rights activist on Tuesday of illegally providing abortion pills and sentenced her to eight months of community service, in a case that has resonance for a post-Roe United States.
For decades, majority-Catholic Poland has had some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, which were tightened further in 2020 by banning exceptions for cases of fetal abnormalities. While performing an abortion on yourself is legal, aiding someone else is not.
Justyna Wydrzynska, who co-founded Abortion Dream Team, which provides people with information about how to safely terminate their pregnancies, said the ruling will not stop her activities.
“I’m not feeling guilty at all for me. The only one verdict I’m taking is the one I received from the person who I sent pills to,” she told The Washington Post after the verdict. “When I get home, I will have the same life, the same phone, the same Abortion Without Borders helpline. And I will answer calls, send emails. Nothing will change.”
Kinga Jelinska, one of the other co-founders of the Abortion Dream Team, says the group will appeal the verdict.
The case has found particular resonance in the United States since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and in the wake of several states implementing restrictive abortion laws. While the Biden administration has said abortion pills are authorized as safe and effective for use in all 50 states, providing them to people in the 11 states where abortion is now illegal remains a gray area.
In Texas, for instance, a man has filed a wrongful-death suit against three women who assisted his now ex-wife in acquiring the medication to terminate her pregnancy, in the first such case brought since the state’s near-total abortion ban passed.
While abortion in Poland is still permitted in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life, there is effectively a total ban because finding a doctor to perform one under those circumstances is difficult.
Rape victims must provide a certificate from a prosecutor for the procedure, and many doctors are afraid to provide care to pregnant people experiencing obstetric emergencies out of fear of breaking the law.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, there were dueling demonstrations in the steady rain, with antiabortion groups carrying graphic images of fetuses and another group supporting Wydrzynska.
Members of her organization mimed passing around abortion pills to each other in front of the media to protest her conviction.
“We will continue doing that because that’s the safest way to provide abortions, especially in the first trimester, and it saves lives. It’s a very simple act but it saves lives. And we wanted to show what exactly was done,” said Anna Prus of the Abortion Dream Team outside the courtroom.
Charlotte Fischer, an activist from the Abortion Support Network who traveled from Britain to attend the hearing, said that by going to court Wydrzynska has put the whole system on trial.
“She’s laid open both the human need and value of abortion and also the cruelty in trying to police it in the way that’s happened,” she said.
One pregnant woman, 30-year-old Izabela Sajbor, died of septic shock at a Polish hospital in September 2021 after medical workers refused to treat her until her fetus died, her lawyer said. In January 2022, a second woman, known as Agnieszka T., died in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy after doctors, wary of violating the law, refused to carry out an abortion when the heartbeat of one fetus stopped.
Obtaining abortion pills, however, remains relatively easy, Wydrzynska said. “What is tricky and quite tough, is that you have to do everything by yourself.”
The woman Wydrzynska was convicted of giving abortion pills to has been identified as Ania. According to a briefing on the case, published by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, she reached out to Abortion Without Borders in February 2020. She decided to have an abortion, but threats from her husband prevented her from traveling to a clinic in Germany.
As the coronavirus pandemic picked up speed and international mail became less reliable, Wydrzynska mailed Ania the abortion pills from her house. Ania’s husband reportedly found the pills, however, and called police, who confiscated them. Ania said the stress of the police investigation led her to miscarry.
Wydrzynska’s home was later searched, and police discovered mifepristone and misoprostol, common abortion medications. In November 2021, she was charged with possession of unauthorized medicines and aiding an abortion.
“We are in awe of Justyna’s bravery in the face of 18 months of judicial persecution by an apparatus targeting anyone who dares challenge the state’s immoral attacks on health care and human rights,” said Irene Donadio of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in a statement. “Justyna was already doing community service by stepping in where the State has been failing and providing safe abortion care.”
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of global rights nonprofit Amnesty International, called the guilty verdict a “depressing low in the repression of reproductive rights in Poland” and a “chilling snapshot of the consequences” of such restrictive abortion laws. “The conviction must be overturned,” she said in a news release.
Some European political groups, including the European Greens and the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats Group, condemned the ruling Tuesday.
Activists say the trial is as much a test of Poland’s abortion law as the independence of its judiciary, which has prompted international concern in recent years.
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party has changed the process of appointing, promoting and disciplining judges so that they are beholden to the ruling party. The judge in this case is a former prosecutor appointed by the justice minister who himself is also the country’s national attorney.
“It was a political trial. We know that because a prosecutor was actually representing the Polish country — the Polish country, which deprived women of their fundamental rights to have access to abortion and to have access to the decision about their health, about their body and about their pregnancy,” said Katarzyna Kotula, a member of the center-left Nowa Lewica party.
Poland’s Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Brady reported from Berlin and Parker from Washington.
Charlotte Fischer's and Katarzyna Kotula’s names were misspelled in an earlier version of this article. The article has been corrected.