Justyna Wydrzynska convicted of illegally distributing abortion pills in Poland


A Polish court on Tuesday found a human rights activist guilty of illegally distributing abortion pills and sentenced her to eight months of community service, in a case that appeals to a post-roe United States.

Majority-Catholic Poland has had some of Europe’s toughest abortion laws for decades, which were further tightened in 2020 by banning exceptions for cases of fetal abnormalities. While it is legal to perform an abortion on yourself, helping someone else is not.

Justyna Wydrzynska, who co-founded the Abortion Dream Team, which provides people with information on how to safely terminate their pregnancy, told the Washington Post before the trial that her case was being used by the government to set an example and ” to shut up all the activists in Poland.”

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“They won’t succeed because we are not afraid of them. I’m not afraid of the verdict,” she said the night before it was announced.

In her final testimony in court before the verdict, Wydrzynska cried and described her own experience of domestic violence and how she wanted to help others.

The case has had particular resonance in the United States after the coup Roe v. calf in June 2022, and several states are enacting restrictive abortion laws. While the Biden administration has declared that abortion pills are approved as safe and effective in all 50 states, their availability to people in the 11 states where abortion is now illegal remains a gray area.

In Texas, for example, a man has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against three women who helped his now ex-wife obtain the drugs to terminate her pregnancy. This was the first such case brought since the state’s near-total ban on abortion.

While abortions in Poland are still allowed in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening conditions to the mother, there is a virtual total ban as it is difficult to find a doctor to perform an abortion in these circumstances.

Rape victims are required to provide a prosecutor’s certificate of procedure, and many doctors are reluctant to treat pregnant women in emergency obstetrics for fear of breaking the law.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, in the pouring rain, there were dueling demonstrations, with anti-abortion groups carrying graphic images of fetuses and the other group supporting Wydrzynska.

Members of her organization pretended to be distributing abortion pills in front of the media to protest her conviction.

“We will continue to do this because it is the safest way to perform 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 exactly what was done,” said Abortion Dream Team’s Anna Prus from outside the courtroom.

Charlotte Fisher, an activist with the Abortion Support Network who traveled from the UK to attend the hearing, said Wydrzynska had taken the whole system to justice by going to court.

“She exposed both the human necessity and the value of abortion, and also the cruelty of trying to police it the way it happened,” she said.

A pregnant woman, 30-year-old Izabela Sajbor, died of septic shock in a Polish hospital in September 2021 after medical staff refused to treat her until her fetus died, her lawyer said. In January 2022, a second woman named Agnieszka T. died in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy after doctors, fearing legal violations, refused to perform an abortion when a fetus’ heartbeat stopped.

However, obtaining abortion pills is relatively easy, Wydrzynska said. “The difficult and quite hard thing is that you have to do everything on your own.”

Ms Wydrzynska, who is accused of giving abortion pills, has been identified as Ania. She contacted Abortion without Borders in February 2020, according to a briefing on the case released by the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She decided to have an abortion, but her husband’s threats prevented her from traveling to a clinic in Germany.

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As the coronavirus pandemic gathered momentum and international mail became less reliable, Wydrzynska sent Ania the abortion pills from her home. However, Ania’s husband reportedly found the pills and called the police, who confiscated them. Ania said the stress of the police investigation led her to miscarry.

Wydrzynska’s home was searched and police discovered mifepristone and misoprostol, common abortion drugs, and five months later, in November 2021, she was charged with possession of unauthorized drugs and assisting with an abortion.

Despite the verdict, Wydrzynska describes the attention the case has garnered as a success for abortion rights activism.

“We really succeeded. Because in this country everyone knows about abortion without borders – that we not only help logistically but also financially. Everyone knows you can order abortion pills and it’s easy and legal.”

Throughout the trial, she persisted in her efforts to make abortions available to those in Poland who needed them, although she admitted “it was pretty tough still working and being on trial.”

Activists say the trial is as much a test of Poland’s abortion law as it is of the independence of its judiciary, which has sparked international concern in recent years.

Since Poland’s Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, it has changed the process of appointing, promoting and disciplining judges, making them accountable to the ruling party.

“The judge in my court case was appointed by the Attorney General in 2019, and before that she was a prosecutor, so we know that she is somehow connected to the Ministry of Justice,” Wydrzynska said.

Kasia Strek in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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