A packet of abortion pills and a catheter.

The difference between a safe and an unsafe abortion and in many cases, the difference between life and death. Justyna Wydrzyńska held up these items while addressing the European Parliament, to describe how women in Poland are forced to risk their lives if they need an abortion.

Justyna was recently sentenced for helping a woman, Anja, to have a safe abortion. Anja was in an abusive relationship when she became pregnant. Wanting to terminate the pregnancy, but with no legal options due to Poland’s de facto abortion ban, she contacted Justyna. Justyna’s organisation, the Abortion Dream Team, helps women in Poland access safe abortions. In 2020, Justyna sent Anja abortion pills but when Anja’s partner found the pills he reported Justyna to the police.

Anja’s story is one of loneliness and systemic violence. Before speaking to Justyna, Anja spent a week in hospital against her will. She was dehydrated, starving and constantly vomiting. Doctors noted concern for her nutritional health and referred her for a psychological assessment but no one asked her if she wanted to continue her pregnancy.

Desperate and scared, Anja tried to induce an abortion using a catheter, “the method of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” said Justyna. She started to bleed, but using this unsafe method left her with sepsis. Anja could have died.

“I had sent her abortion pills, authorised by the World Health Organisation and 98% effective,” said Justyna fighting back tears. “Anja had the chance for a safe abortion but that chance was taken away from her.”

Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU. The de facto abortion ban that came into force in October 2020 has been devastating for women seeking abortions in Poland and those defending their rights. Women have to rely on organisations like Abortion Dream Team and on advocates like Justyna.

Justyna has been helping women access abortions for 16 years. She helps operate the Abortion without Borders helpline which offers free, practical advice on how to obtain an abortion. In total they have supported 100,000 women to access abortion. They help women to pay for getting an abortion outside Poland – for the travel, procedure and accommodation. Providing this kind of service is expensive, and they rely on donations.

The space that these organisations are working in is shrinking. Sentences like Justyna’s have a chilling effect and are intended to deter those seeking to defend a woman’s right to self-determination.

“The court decided that saving a life was socially harmful. Many times I’ve asked myself if I regret what I did, but I do not. I regret that Anja was alone,” said Justyna.

Commenting on Justyna’s intervention in the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Left MEP María-Eugenia Rodriguez-Palop (Podemos, Spain) said: “Justyna’s story shows us just how far backwards we have gone in denying sexual and reproductive rights and criminalising sisterhood. The conviction for helping another woman is unjust and reminds us to keep fighting for women’s rights to be respected in the EU and in the world. We stand with Justyna and all women who are punished for defending access to abortion and for respecting women’s choices over their own bodies.”

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