Poland’s Near-Total Abortion Ban Threatens Ukrainian Refugees

A pro-abortion protester holds a picture of a deceased woman named Agnieszka, during a protest in front of the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party office against the abortion ban in Krakow, Poland, on Jan. 26, 2022. Agnieszka, a 37-year-old woman pregnant with twins, died on Jan. 25. After one of her fetuses died on Dec. 23, she was made to carry it for over a week while doctors waited to see what happened to its still-living twin.
(Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A war has been waging in Europe since Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have stayed in the country to fend off the attack, while others have fled to neighboring countries, especially Poland, the main country of arrival for refugees from Ukraine. Once there, refugee women—including those who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of Russian soldiers—are struggling to access abortions.

Since the start of the invasion, over 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Poland, the country with some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, as well as practical obstacles that make abortion nearly impossible to access.

In October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled abortions in cases of fetal health issues were unconstitutional, which represented approximately 98 percent of legal procedures within the country. This decision propelled the already conservative government of Poland toward a near-total abortion ban, sparking protests across the nation earlier this year. 

Currently, abortion is permitted for up to 12 weeks, but only when the pregnancy is the result of a crime (such as rape or incest) or when the life of the pregnant person is under threat. However, providers say abortions for rape victims are almost never performed. According to Poland’s health ministry, the country has never allowed more than three abortions per year for pregnancies resulting from rape. Those seeking an abortion need to prove they were raped with a certified letter from a public prosecutor.

Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), a Polish reproductive rights organization, said to receive the certified letter from a public prosecutor, details such as the time, date and location are necessary. “For Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian soldiers, this is impossible. And anyway, many of them are so traumatized that they will not speak about it at all—not even with us.”

Thus, abortion is virtually impossible within Poland. 

In crises such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, women disproportionately face sexual and gender-based violence. Although the exact number of cases involving sexual abuse in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is unknown, Matilda Bogner, a U.N. human rights investigator in Ukraine, said there are “dozens of allegations,” and many of these reports occurred in “the areas around Kyiv where Russian forces were and then left.” As of early June 2022, U.N. officials received more than 120 reports of rape, though they believe the number to be much higher. 

In response to this humanitarian emergency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials are demanding refugees in Poland have access to reproductive rights, including abortion. This echoes the call made by some Polish politicians earlier this year for the national government to guarantee all refugees the right to abortion in a public hospital. While the attention of the international community is on abortion access in Poland, no change has yet been made to ease restrictions for Ukrainian refugees. As the war continues, the need for emergency contraception and abortion services will continue to grow exponentially. 

In the meantime, local figures have found ways to assist abortion seekers. Ukrainian gynecologist Dr. Myroslava Marchenko refers patients to international organizations such as Women Help Women or Women on Web, where they can order abortion pills by mail. And activists in Poland have formed networks to assist abortion seekers through phone hotlines. Oxsana Lytvynenko, a Ukrainian who has lived in Poland for 18 years, said her role is “not only a Ukrainian language translator, but also a Polish reality translator.” Lytvynenko works as a pro-choice translator for newly arrived refugees trying to navigate their new legal landscape, as Poland’s stance on abortion is much more conservative than in Ukraine

But assisting abortion seekers comes with many risks and consequences including lengthy prison sentences. Justyna Wydrzyńska, an activist and member of a Polish initiative called the “Abortion Dream Team,” is awaiting trial in Warsaw for her efforts to secure abortion access. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison. She is the first abortion-rights activist in Poland to face criminal charges and is unsure of her future in the Polish legal system. The impending result of her trial forces activists in Poland to contemplate their future in the country as well as the best path to continue their vital work. 

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Hannah Phelps is an editorial intern at Ms. and a senior at Smith College majoring in government and the study of women and gender. Her interests include educational equity, international law and transnational feminism.