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Justyna Wydrzynska

Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska is facing up to three years behind bars for helping a woman obtain abortion pills. (Photo: Amnesty International)

Advocates Urge Poland to Drop Charges Against Woman in Abortion Pill Case

"Women human rights defenders should be protected by the law, rather than punished by it," one activist said in defense of Justyna Wydrzyńska, who faces up to three years in prison.

Brett Wilkins

Prominent rights groups on Wednesday joined progressive European parliamentarians in urging Polish prosecutors to drop charges against an activist who faces up to three years in prison for helping a pregnant woman access abortion pills.

"No one should be criminalized, let alone prosecuted, for helping someone to get a safe abortion."

Justyna Wydrzyńska, a 47-year-old doula and member of the advocacy group Abortion Dream Team, was charged in November 2021 with "helping with an abortion" and possession of unauthorized medication.

"A woman contacted me in a desperate situation," Wydrzyńska explained to Amnesty International. "She told me that her violent husband was trying to stop her from having an abortion. Her story touched my heart as I had had a similar experience. I felt I had to help her."

Polish law prohibits abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of a pregnant person is at risk. Any person convicted of helping someone terminate a pregnancy outside those narrow exceptions can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Wydrzyńska is scheduled to appear Thursday in a Warsaw court for a hearing. An earlier hearing was postponed after key prosecution witnesses—including the allegedly abusive husband of the pregnant woman who received the pills—failed to appear. The same man reported his wife to police.

"The trial of Justyna Wydrzyńska comes at a time when the threat to abortion rights has been brought into sharp focus by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is a reminder that our rights to life, to health, to bodily integrity and autonomy cannot be taken for granted," Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard said on Wednesday.

"We must and we are prepared to fight for our rights for as long as it takes, when and where required. Anything less than all charges against Justyna Wydrzyńska being immediately dropped would set a dangerous precedent in Poland," she continued. "It will also send a chilling message to other governments seeking to curtail the activities of abortion rights activists, who are campaigning for bodily autonomy and the right to access safe abortions."

"No one should be criminalized, let alone prosecuted, for helping someone to get a safe abortion," Callamard asserted. "Around the world, prohibition of safe abortion kills thousands of women and girls every year."

Hillary Margolis, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that "dragging a woman's rights activist into court on accusations of helping a domestic violence victim shows just how far Poland's government will go in its crusade to stop women and girls from exercising their reproductive rights."

Margolis continued: 

Tomorrow, anyone could be in Justyna Wydrzyńska's place, and no one should have to risk being charged with a crime for helping women get essential healthcare.

Prosecuting Justyna is another cynical and vicious attempt by Polish authorities to cut off all avenues to safe abortion care through fearmongering. Instead, the government should use its resources to ensure that everyone in Poland can get the sexual and reproductive healthcare they need, and help others do so, without risking a prison sentence.

Keina Yoshida, legal adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights—which filed an amicus brief in the case—argued Wednesday that "essential healthcare, including abortion care, is a human right."

"Using the criminal law to target women who need abortion care, or those who help them, is contrary to international human rights law," she stressed. "Women human rights defenders should be protected by the law, rather than punished by it."

Earlier this week, 83 members of the European Parliament called on Polish authorities to drop charges.

"This is currently one of the most important cases in Europe," the parliamentarians wrote in a letter that called Wydrzyńska's work "an expression of empathy, solidarity, and understanding of the needs of others."

"The hearing is happening in a political context that is hostile to women's rights defenders and the respect of women's rights in general," the MEPs contended. "International human rights standards make it clear that this case should not be pending at all

Dozens of Belgian lawmakers also pressed Polish prosecutors to change course.

"On the basis of the new guidelines of the World Health Organization which include comprehensive abortion care in the list of essential health services and which recommend the full decriminalization of abortion," the Belgian parliamentarians wrote, "we urge you to immediately drop all charges against human rights defender Justyna Wydrzyńska and not to bring any further charges with the aim of criminalizing Justyna and other activists on the grounds that they have provided vital support to people seeking abortions."

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