Justyna Wydrzynska convicted of illegally providing abortion pills in Poland


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 that provides people with information about how to safely terminate their pregnancies, told The Washington Post before the trial that her case was being used by the government to set an example and “close the mouths of all the activists in Poland.”

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

“They will not succeed in this because we are not afraid of them. I am not afraid of the verdict,” she said the night before it was announced.

In her final statement in court before the verdict, Wydrzynska wept and described her own experiences of domestic violence and how she wanted to help others.

The case has had particular resonance in the United States following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, and several states installing 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 threat to the mother’s life, there is effectively a total ban since finding a doctor to carry out an abortion 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 anti-abortion groups carrying graphic images of fetuses and the other 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 Fisher, an activist from the Abortion Support Network that 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 is accused 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.

Abortion pills are booming worldwide. Will their use grow in Texas?

As the coronavirus pandemic picked up speed and international mail becoming less reliable, and Wydrzynska posted 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 searched and police discovered mifepristone and misoprostol, common abortion medications, and five months later, in November 2021, she was charged with possession of unauthorized medicines and aiding an abortion.

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

“We really succeeded. Because of the case everybody knows in this country about Abortion without Borders — that we help not only logistically, but also financially. Everybody knows that 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 need them, though she admitted “it was kind of tough to still be working and to be on trial.”

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 of my court case was nominated by the general prosecutor in 2019 and previously she was a prosecutor so we know that she is somehow connected with the Justice Ministry,” said Wydrzynska.

Brady reported from Berlin and Parker from Washington.

2023-03-14 14:35:57