Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU. Pro-choice demonstrators confront police in 2020 (Photo: Spacerowiczka)
Three years in prison is what Polish activist Justyna Wyndrzyńska is facing for showing empathy to another woman in need of abortion care and helping her to obtain one. Just a week after International Women’s Day, this women’s rights activist on Tuesday (14 March) will have her next and most likely last hearing.
Her possible conviction would set a dangerous precedent in the EU and beyond, by ultimately putting the work of sexual and reproductive health and rights defenders at risk and contributing to the silencing of human rights activists.
As MEPs working on improving Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) , we are greatly concerned about this court case, and urgently request the Polish justice ministry and the Polish Public Prosecutor General to immediately drop all charges against Wyndrzyńska.
It is the very first case in Europe where an activist is charged with helping to access abortion care. Defending the fundamental right to access safe and legal abortions cannot be a crime, not in Poland or anywhere else in the EU.
Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU.
The de facto abortion ban that came into force after the Polish Court in October 2020 ruled that abortions in cases of foetal illness or abnormality would be illegal, which was a devastating decision for Polish women.
To this date, at least six women have died after denial of abortion care because of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruling.
Doctors’ fear of breaching the country’s strict abortion laws and facing criminal charges result in women not getting the abortion care they need. Similarly, Ukrainian women refugees, who for a large part fled to Poland, are denied abortion care there and are forced to travel to another country, or back to Ukraine, to terminate their pregnancy.
The only option for those who cannot travel abroad to access safe abortion care is to rely on NGOs and women’s rights defenders, such as Wyndrzyńska, who help with safe self-administrated abortions.
Wyndrzyńska is a member of the Polish abortion rights organisation called “Abortion Dream Team” and in 2020 she responded to a request for abortion pills from ‘Anna’ who was in an abusive relationship and had opted against carrying the pregnancy to term. The pills were confiscated by the woman’s husband, who then alerted the police, leading to the arrest of Wyndrzyńska.
Even with the abortion ban, the PiS government’s attempts to undermine access to SRHR continue.
Recently, a highly controversial “Abortion is murder” bill was introduced to the Polish parliament with the purpose of penalising people who publicly support, or provide advice on, abortion in Poland and abroad, and to further criminalise abortions on all grounds.
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This demonstrates the relentless attacks on the right to abortion, especially against those who defend it. n 2020, the PiS government also introduced a so-called ‘pregnancy register’, a measure obliging all doctors to register all pregnancies. The hidden purpose of this surveillance is to keep track of whether or not people carry their pregnancy to term, and possibly criminalise doctors who would help them terminate it.
But the activists and NGOs that defend SRHR have not only to deal with strong opposition from their government, but also with attacks from ultra-conservative movements that profit from a well-funded global network of religious and private donors.
However, Poland is not the only country where the government is trying to eliminate the right to abortion; other governments worldwide are doing the same. The primary example being the overturning of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court in June 2022. In a response to the backlash against women’s rights, the European Parliament last year voted to include the right to safe and legal abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
It is of utmost urgency for Polish authorities to reform the law on abortion and ensure that all women in Poland have access to quality and affordable sexual and reproductive health services. All charges against Wydrzyńska must be dropped.
“Empathy shouldn’t be punished, especially when someone is asking you for help”, said Wydrzyńska. We have a crucial responsibility to denounce the injustice she has faced.