Polish activists help Ukrainian refugees end pregnancies amid abortion bans

A woman holds a placard during a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Poland

Demonstrators attend a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, January 29, 2021. REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

What’s the context?

Despite strict abortion bans, Polish activists are working with underground networks and risking jail time to help Ukrainians end pregnancies.

  • Surge of calls from pregnant Ukrainian refugees in Poland
  • Activists enlist underground networks for abortion support
  • Justyna Wydrzynska to go on trial for aiding an abortion

(Corrects European countries where abortion is banned in par 26)

KYIV - The death of a husband in war, rape by Russian soldiers and an uncertain future as a refugee - just some of the tragic reasons Ukrainian women have sought abortions in neighbouring Poland.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February and millions fled west, Polish rights groups saw a surge in calls from Ukrainians wanting an abortion. One group, the Foundation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA), even set up a dedicated hotline.

"There was this one woman ... who was pregnant early on and she was crying on the phone," said Antonina Lewandowska, who fields calls from Polish and Ukrainian women.

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"It was a very difficult conversation because she was terrified. She kept saying she needs help but she just couldn’t explain what kind of help because of the language barrier," she said in a phone interview from the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Lewandowska's job is not easy.

Poland's top court ruled in 2020 that abortions due to foetal defects were unconstitutional, further tightening Poland's already restrictive anti-abortion laws.

Abortion is only permitted when a woman's life or health is endangered, or in cases of rape and incest. In reality, activists say it is extremely difficult to access an abortion on those legal grounds.

FEDERA provides counselling and legal advice, and directs women to groups elsewhere in Europe that can send pills into Poland, or organise travel and accommodation to undergo an abortion in more liberal places like Germany or the Netherlands.   

Tens of thousands of Poles took to Warsaw's streets in protest when the restrictions came into force in 2021, and at least three pregnant women have since died because medical staff refused to administer an abortion, Human Rights Watch says.

In an emailed statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Polish health ministry reiterated that abortion was only allowed in cases of rape and incest or when it poses a threat to a woman's life or health.

Ukrainian refugees walk towards the border crossing from Poland to Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees walk towards the border crossing from Poland to Ukraine, amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Ukrainian refugees walk towards the border crossing from Poland to Ukraine, amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Medyka, Poland, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Underground networks

The challenges facing women seeking abortions in Poland are likely to be replicated in the United States, where the Supreme Court overturned the right to an abortion in June. This swiftly led to more than a dozen states introducing local bans.

Rights groups in conservative U.S. states now rely on similar underground networks in liberal neighbouring states or countries like Mexico and Canada to provide medical care or pills in the post.

Helping women can come at a huge personal cost. 

Polish activist Justyna Wydrzynska is due to go on trial on Jul. 14 for aiding an abortion after she gave her own pills in 2020 to a woman in an abusive relationship who was desperate to end her pregnancy.

Despite the legal risk, Wydrzynska said she felt compelled to give the woman the pills as a one-off.

"I also had ... experience of living in an abusive relationship with a very controlling partner," said Wydrzynska, who co-founded Abortion Dream Team in 2016, which counsels Polish women on how to safely find and take abortion pills.

"I know exactly how it is and what you feel when you're living in such circumstances."

Wydrzynska said the woman's partner discovered she was receiving abortion support and called the police. Wydrzynska now faces up to three years in jail.

A woman cannot be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy in Poland, but those who perform or aid in performing an abortion can be jailed.  

Reproductive rights rollback?

One of the main groups that Poles work with is the cross-European, Abortion Without Borders network, set up in 2019, which has information, funding, appointment booking, translation services, accommodation and travel advice.

It has helped over 550 Ukrainian refugees in Poland since March, by providing information, supplying abortion pills or helping women travel to clinics and hospitals abroad.

"What all of (the refugees) tell us is how shocked they are about the situation in Poland," said Zuzanna Dziuban from Berlin-based Ciocia Basia, which is part of the network.

"They did not realise that a country which is supposedly democratic, European ... has this kind of restrictive anti-abortion law," she added, referring to those who travelled to Germany from Poland to have an abortion.

Poland is the only major European country to severely restrict access to abortion.

Dziuban said the overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States showed how reproductive rights anywhere in the world can easily be rolled back.

"The one thing that we learned ... is that it can be taken from us at any moment, wherever we are," said  Dziuban. 

This article was updated on July 15 to correct European countries where abortion is banned.

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