Facing a Post-Roe World, the U.S. Should Look to Polish Activists for Inspiration

“When it comes to abortion, solidarity is the only way to survive.”

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)

Advocates across the U.S. were shaken by Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — threatening abortion rights across the U.S. — this past June. For women in Poland, this is a painfully familiar story.

Poland enforces a near-total ban on abortion. At present, abortion is permitted only in cases of rape or incest — which can be very hard to prove — or when the pregnancy would threaten the life of the mother. In practice, even in these specific eligible cases, it can be almost impossible to obtain an abortion, since religious exemptions and murky legal restrictions mean that few doctors are willing to carry out abortions. 

Although terminating one’s own pregnancy is not criminalized in Poland, assisting with the provision of unpermitted abortions is legally punishable. Nevertheless, despite severe social stigma and harsh legal challenges, activists haven’t held back or given up. Their work — made possible by perseverance, smart strategy and international solidarity — holds valuable insights for activists working in a post-Roe America.

Polish activists take matters into their own hands

Natalia Broniarczyk, a representative of Polish abortion advocacy group Abortion Dream Team, insists that, in the face of legal restrictions, “self-help” is crucial: “There’s no point waiting for the law to change, because people need abortions right here and right now.” 

For Abortion Dream Team, practical aid comes first. “In our opinion, the best political tool for changing the law is simply to help each other obtain abortions, says Broniarczyk. She’s keen to emphasise that despite the “legal restrictions and the social stigma,” obtaining abortions and supporting people seeking abortions remains possible in Poland.

The Polish state provided just 107 abortions in 2021 — authorized either because prenatal tests indicated a high probability of a severe, irreversible impairment of the fetus, or because the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother. Meanwhile, in the same year, the cross-European Abortion Without Borders Network, of which Abortion Dream Team is a member, helped almost 31,790 people from Poland access abortions.

In 2021, Abortion Without Borders spent €248,440 ($247,466 USD) on safe abortion pills, medical procedures in abortion clinics, travel, accommodation, and COVID-19 testing. They helped 1,186 people travel abroad to obtain a surgical abortion in a clinic or hospital. 

“Don’t ask and don’t apologize.”

When Abortion Dream Team was first established in 2016, its founders sought to challenge the dominant narratives surrounding abortion. “We were fed up with political disputes about the beginning of life,” says Broniarczyk. “We wanted to present abortion as an everyday experience, not a matter of opinion or a subject for debate.” 

Rejecting stigmatization is central to the group’s philosophy. Their slogan? “Abortion is OK! How can we help?” The group is committed to advocating for anyone seeking an abortion, regardless of their motivations. “If we really want fair access to abortion, we mustn’t grade the reasons for an abortion, or divide them into categories of more or less essential and justified,” says Broniarczyk. 

“If the law is unfair, it is fair to break it.”

Activists seek to skirt around Poland’s legal restrictions by collaborating with international partners through the Abortion Without Borders Network, but their work is not without risk. Justyna Wydrzyńska, a co-founder of Abortion Dream Team, is currently facing three years in prison for helping a woman seeking an abortion. She stood trial for the third time on Oct. 14.

Generally, Abortion Dream Team evades legal consequences by directing those seeking pharmacological abortions to NGOs based overseas. These organisations can legally provide mifepristone and misoprostol, the most common abortion medications, and post them to people in Poland. 

In February 2020, Wydrzyńska mailed some abortion pills which she had kept in her own home, rather than using an international third-party. The intended recipient of these abortion pills was 12 weeks pregnant, near the end of the window in which medication abortion is effective. Furthermore, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was reportedly causing international shipping delays, so Wydrzyńska sought to expedite the process by sending the pills herself.

Explaining the circumstances, Wydrzyńska told Amnesty International: “A woman contacted me in a desperate situation. 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.”

However, police officers —  reportedly called by the intended recipient’s husband — intercepted the package. More than a year later, police officers searched Wydrzyńska’s home, confiscating abortion medication, as well as her family’s computers and mobile phones. She was charged with “aiding and abetting abortion.”

“We have to be united.”

International solidarity is crucial to both Abortion Dream Team’s philosophy and their day-to-day work. As well as collaborating with overseas organizations to deliver medication for self-managed, at-home abortions, Abortion Dream Team’s international partners to facilitate treatment in foreign hospitals and clinics. Their partners include Berlin-based Ciocia Basia and Abortion Network Amsterdam, which fund surgical abortions in Germany and the Netherlands. 

Abortion Dream Team have also long engaged with abortion advocacy groups outside of Europe. Now, in the face of diminishing abortion rights across much of the U.S., they are eager to support their American counterparts, because they “know what it’s like.” 

“We have to be united,” says Broniarczyk. “When it comes to abortion, solidarity is the only way to survive.”

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Stephanie Stacey is a freelance journalist from Cumbria, U.K. She has written for various outlets, including The Progress Network, The Art Newspaper and Hyperallergic. You can follow her on Twitter: @stephistacey.