War in Ukraine has exposed Poland’s inhumane abortion laws, and these feminists need our help
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter)
War is once again in Europe, which means that rape as a weapon of war is once again in Europe, which means that unintended pregnancies as a result of rape as a weapon of war are happening today – right here in Europe.
It is just one horrific detail among thousands in Russia’s war on Ukraine that a refugee population of more than five million people, the majority of them women, is mostly fleeing to Poland, a country where abortion is almost entirely illegal.
These are people enduring unimaginable hardship, but in one sense they are no different from the millions around the world every day who need to end a pregnancy. Their reasons for needing an abortion do not, and should not, matter – they should be able to get one, no matter what. But they are being driven out of a country where it is legal to end a pregnancy and into one where it is outlawed in almost all circumstances and functionally impossible even when technically permitted.
Abortion is only legal in Poland in cases of risk to the life or health of the pregnant person, or in cases of rape. We know that it is out of reach in the former case because at least two women have died while waiting for a life-saving abortion since 2021. In the latter, proving that you have been raped in order to access an abortion is not only traumatic but also near impossible, as it requires a criminal investigation.
Imagine, if you can bear it, that you have been raped in a war. That you have fled your home, been separated from your family, perhaps lost loved ones to fighting or to bombs. And that to end your pregnancy, you must obtain a certificate from a prosecutor proving what happened, when the person who raped you is not even in the same country.
The war in Ukraine has thrown a harsh new light on the situation that Polish women live with every single day. It is the situation that other refugees in Poland, who have fled Afghanistan or Syria or Belarus, have already faced. It is a situation that should not be happening anywhere, but is taking place on a continent that apparently prides itself on being a bastion of gender equality and human rights.
And who is dealing with this horror show? Not national governments. Not political leaders. In many cases, not even doctors. The people dealing with these consistent violations of human rights are a small band of exhausted but determined feminists running on a combination of crowdfunding and adrenaline.
Aborcyjny Dream Team and the wider Abortion Without Borders network provide people who need abortions with advice on how to get them, whether that is by directing them to organisations like Women Help Women or Women On Web that send pills by post, or by helping fund travel to other countries.
They are taking desperate people’s calls, helping them get the abortion pills they need, and communicating via Google Translate where necessary to let people know that despite the best efforts of the Polish government, it is possible to get an abortion if you need one in Poland – thanks to them.
Justyna Wydrzyńska, one of four members of Aborcyjny Dream Team, told me the organisation had assisted 158 Ukrainians since the beginning of March, including helping two leave Poland to get an abortion elsewhere. In the course of the past year, they have helped 34,000 people in total.
The Ukraine crisis is just the latest of a series of catastrophes the organisation has had to navigate since they launched in 2019, starting with the pandemic, when border closures and postal delays made it even more difficult to access abortion from Poland. Then, in January 2021, demand for their services skyrocketed when a constitutional court ban on terminations in cases of foetal abnormality came into effect.
Later in 2021, police raided Wydrzyńska’s home, confiscating abortion medication as well as her family’s computers and phones. She was subsequently charged with ‘helping with an abortion‘ and faces up to three years in jail if found guilty.
In 2020, Aborcyjny Dream Team had heard from a pregnant woman who was experiencing domestic violence and needed an abortion. She told them she had tried to travel to Germany with her young child to end the pregnancy, but her husband said he would charge her with kidnapping if she they left the country together.
It is not illegal to end a pregnancy in Poland using medication you have purchased online, but it is illegal to provide someone with that medication. But this was the height of the pandemic, and too late for the woman to wait to receive pills by post in time for the 12 week cut-off. So Wydrzyńska sent her some pills she had at home.
“I have also experienced domestic violence and I know how it is living with an abusive husband,” Wydrzyńska told me. “When somebody is begging you, ‘Please help me,’ you really don’t have any other choice but to help.”
Before the woman had the chance to take the pills, police arrived at her home and confiscated them. We must call this what it is. It is the state not just being complicit, but fully participating in a domestic abuse.
Wydrzyńska faces trial on July 14. When I asked her what it is like having to work with this court case hanging over her, she simply said, “It’s not stopping me.”
“Giving information to people and hearing that they found a solution for their situation is something which really drives me to do it even more, and work harder and longer,” she said.
Poland and Europe are outsourcing their moral responsibility to four feminist activists who are risking jail to help people otherwise abandoned to a misogynist system that wishes to force them to give birth against their will. Our entire defence against this real-life Gilead consists of Wydrzyńska and her colleagues, and we are all apparently fine with that.
I have written before that when geopolitics shift, so too do reproductive rights. This is because Europe is horribly complacent about the rights of women and pregnant people.
We look with concern at Roe v Wade teetering on a precipice in the United States, while the European Parliament elects an anti-abortion president from Malta, a country that trapped its own population on an island with no access to terminations during the 2020 lockdown.
Poland may the most extreme example of abortion restrictions in the region, but it is not alone in making life difficult for those who need them. Slovakia has mandatory waiting periods for abortions, Hungary imposes multiple medical appointments including an ultrasound before a procedure can be carried out, and Romania is rolling back access. These are all countries where large numbers of Ukrainian refugees are arriving.
No one was thinking about abortions during Brexit, but as a result of the UK leaving the EU, Abortion Without Borders now struggles to get people to one of the only countries where late-term abortion is possible, because now they need a passport to enter, and many of the most disadvantaged people don’t have one, nor do they have the time to wait to apply for one.
When I ask Wydrzyńska what she and her colleagues need in order to keep going during this difficult time, she says two things: money and solidarity. If our leaders in Europe cannot bring themselves to act in the interests of Ukrainian refugees or Polish survivors of domestic violence or the millions of people who will need abortions during their lives, then we certainly can.
‘Helping with an abortion’ may be a crime in Poland, but it is also a heroic way to care for others in need. There are few greater feminists acts than to pay for someone else’s abortion. If you can, please consider it.
Or at the very least, offer your solidarity to the army of feminists who are working around misogynist laws, inadequate provision and widespread indifference to ensure that those who need to end a pregnancy can do so.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
We are a production of Gloria Media – subscribe to our other newsletters:
Les Glorieuses / Economics / Les Petites Glo
Support independent feminist media. Join The Club.