Abortion: How Poland's anti-abortion laws hint at what's in store for the US

290622 US abortion protests and Justyna, AP
After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, ITV News spoke to a Polish pro-choice campaigner to learn how anti-abortion laws affect women on the ground. Credit: Justyna Wydrzynska

by Allegra Goodwin

The woman told the abortion helpline she was going to hurt herself if no one helped her. It was February 2020 and the pandemic had barely begun, but travel was already becoming difficult. She needed an abortion, she said, but she was in an abusive relationship and she couldn’t risk her husband finding out. For Justyna Wydrzynska, the volunteer on the other end of the phone, this case felt personal - she had had an abortion years earlier, also while living with an abusive partner. She sent the desperate woman a packet of pills to end her pregnancy, giving her instructions on how to take them safely.

“I felt it was a gesture of the heart, woman to woman, and not only a woman who had an abortion experience, but a woman who also had experience of home violence,” she told ITV News. But the woman’s husband found the pills and called the police, and two years later, Justyna is facing three years in prison for what she did - she is the first activist to face trial under Polish law for helping someone to get an abortion.

Justyna is part of Abortion without Borders, an international group of pro-choice campaigners that helps women in Poland - where abortion is virtually illegal - end their pregnancies. The group offers information on how to order abortion pills, and can help with travel, hotel and medical costs in other countries. It offers the kind of support that wasn’t available to Justyna when she ended her own pregnancy 16 years before, including the helpline she runs, which receives between 700 and 800 calls a month from women seeking advice.

Justyna had an abortion in 2006.

“I didn’t have anybody to call because there were no helplines,” Justyna said. “There was no information about how to do it,” she said, adding she had tried two different pills that didn’t work before eventually succeeding.

Justyna was terrified and alone. “I know now that it wasn’t dangerous, but at that moment I felt it was. I didn’t have the proper information so I really thought I would die.” It was her own experience that led her to pro-choice campaigning. It’s unthinkable she could be going to prison for helping desperate women, Justyna said. She likened it to the humanitarian efforts going on at Poland’s border to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. “It’s the same situation - some help the person who told you she would kill herself (if she couldn’t get an abortion) and some help the people dying in the war, and now I’m going to prison and they are the heroes.”

Poland, a predominately Catholic country, effectively banned abortion in 1993 with exceptions only when a woman’s life or health is endangered or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. But it is not the only country to backtrack when it comes to women’s rights.

On Friday, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, a ruling which had established the right to safe and legal abortion at any point before a foetus can survive outside the womb, for nearly five decades. It means states are newly able to make their own decisions about a woman’s right to abortion, with at least 26 certain or likely to take steps to ban it entirely.

The decision, unthinkable just a few years ago, was the result of decades of efforts by abortion opponents, made possible by the right side of a court that has seen three members appointed by former President Donald Trump. In some states with so-called "trigger laws", which went into effect immediately, clinics have already shut their doors. But critics say a country can’t really ban abortion - it can only ban safe abortion.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe vs Wade was met with mixed reactions. Credit: Associated Press

Poland offers a glimpse of what the future could look like for a United States where women will lose their right to choose. It’s an emblem of how the rights of women can be erased overnight amid a country's political turbulence. For years, abortion was allowed in the case of foetuses with congenital defects, but this exemption was removed in 2020 by Poland’s constitutional court. Immediately, Justyna said, the helpline phones were ringing 100 times a day as women who had been in hospital waiting for planned abortions were told they were cancelled. “It was huge for us - a lot of women were afraid about what choices they would have in that situation. “But they didn’t disappear - they disappeared from the system but they didn’t disappear from life, and they had to find solutions. “So we took responsibility for them, because they couldn’t find support in the Polish healthcare system, and for us it was something completely new because we’d just been in contact with those who wanted to stop unwanted pregnancies, and now we were in contact with those who had wanted pregnancies, but because of outside causes they had to make that decision.”

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The law change had grave consequences - three women have died as a result so far, abortion-rights campaigners say. One of those women, Izabela, 30, died of sepsis last September after doctors refused to abort her foetus, which had been diagnosed with severe defects. She left behind a husband and daughter. Women’s rights activists said at the time that doctors in Poland wait for a foetus with no chance of survival to die in the womb rather than perform an abortion. Justyna explained that, although doctors are told they can end a pregnancy to save a woman’s life, in reality the law is unclear and they are paralysed by the fear of prosecution. When asked what she thought would be the consequence of overturning Roe for the US, she said Poland showed “if your country takes rights away there is always resistance in society.” “There are lots of grassroots organisations that send abortion pills in the US even now, and there will be activists who will not be frightened and who will be brave to do this work.” But there is one thing Justyna is sure of: the Supreme Court’s move will not stop abortions. “Of course you do not stop abortion. If abortion is illegal in a country there is only an increase in unsafe abortions, but the law doesn’t stop people from getting abortions.”