Nearly two million Ukrainians, mostly women and girls, have sought refuge in Poland since the Russian onslaught began on February 24.
Poland, historically hostile to migrants, has been praised for welcoming fleeing Ukrainians with open arms. But many Ukrainian women who’ve reached Poland, though now safe from Russian cluster bombs, are finding themselves trapped in a country with scarce access to contraception and abortion. Having escaped Russia’s war of conquest, they now find themselves navigating Poland’s war against women.
It’s never been easy to access surgical abortions or abortion pills in Poland, a culturally conservative country where the Catholic Church yields enormous influence over social life. But last year, the country’s highest court ruled – at the behest of the conservative government led by the populist Law and Justice party – that abortions can only be performed in cases of rape or incest, or in (subjective) situations where the mother’s life is at risk. Chiefly, it ruled that abortions for fetal abnormalities violate the country’s constitution.
“The situation for Polish women is extremely difficult. Before the ruling, 99% of abortions were performed because of fetal abnormalities,” says Krystyna Kacpura, a well-known women’s rights advocate in Poland and director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning.
Krystyna, who had to pause our conversation several times because her phone kept buzzing – “Women are calling me from the hospital, I have to answer” – says that “women in difficult pregnancies have been suffering awfully during the last two years” since the government has made abortion illegal in all but very few circumstances.
These limited services can still be very hard for Polish women to access, says Hillary Margolis, a senior researcher from the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Accessing emergency contraception is difficult because it’s only available with a prescription, she notes. Meanwhile, additional pressures “like stigma and taboos, and the way that healthcare providers might act towards people seeking these services” can also deter women and girls from seeking care they might need or want.
Polish women and girls have managed to navigate these restrictions thanks in large part to a network of women’s rights NGOs and advocacy groups that have facilitated access to abortion pills, which can be safely used during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization. These groups also help women further along in their pregnancies leave the country to get abortions abroad, often in the Netherlands, where the procedure is legal up until 22 weeks.
It was precisely this work that landed Justyna Wydrzyńska, an employee at Abortions Without Borders, an NGO, in legal purgatory. In the first case of its kind in Europe, Wydrzyńska, a 47-year-old doula and mother of three from the town of Przasnysz, 60 miles north of Warsaw, is being charged with illegally aiding an abortion and faces three years behind bars.
So what landed her in this perilous position? A terrified woman called her at the office, she says. The woman was in her first trimester of pregnancy and didn’t want to carry to term the child of her abusive partner.
“I empathized with her, because I know what home violence means,” Wydrzyńska said.
She took matters into her own hands and sent the woman an abortion pill at home, which was then intercepted by the abusive partner who called the police. The cops eventually tracked down the source: Wydrzyńska. She now faces an additional charge of illegally selling medications. “It’s bullshit,” she says, “I didn’t take any money from this person. I just sent it for free.”
The Ukrainian women who have arrived in droves in recent weeks aren’t accustomed to such intense restrictions. In Ukraine, abortion is legal up to 12 weeks gestation, and women can easily access termination pills during this period.
“Women and girls coming from Ukraine are not accustomed to the very significant restrictions on reproductive healthcare and reproductive rights that are found in Poland,” Margolis said. There’s a lot of “fear and anxiety” amongst Ukrainian women that they won’t be able to access the healthcare they will need.
Despite her personal predicament, Wydrzyńska is committed to the cause, particularly as more and more Ukrainian refugees appeal for help.
“Ninety-nine people [Ukrainians] contacted us from March 1 asking about abortion and the day after pill,” she says. Meanwhile, Polish families who have taken in Ukrainian refugees are also calling Wydrzyńska and her colleagues, asking about abortion pills for women raped by Russian soldiers.
Krystyna has even trained and hired one refugee – who worked as a gynecologist back in Ukraine – to help bridge cultural and language barriers. Having learnt the law of the land, the doctor now commands the hotline several times a week, providing medical consults for infections and sore breasts, as well as connecting Ukrainian women and girls with the services they need.
As Russian troops have withdrawn in recent weeks from Kyiv and surrounding areas, the extent of the Kremlin’s atrocities have been laid bare. Access to these areas by human rights groups and foreign governments has indeed confirmed what was long suspected: that Russia has been using sexual assault as a weapon of war in Ukraine. Bucha, a suburb of the capital, has emerged as a symbol of this deprivation.
“We got information from activists and volunteers who travelled to Ukraine that women who were raped in Bucha are afraid to come to Poland because of Polish laws,” Wydrzyńska said. They know that “it’s almost impossible to have abortions in Poland on legal grounds,” so many are choosing to stay in war-torn Ukraine and try their luck there.
I asked Krystyna, whose voice is hoarse from hours spent debriefing with vulnerable women, what motivates her to do this sort of work, which is becoming increasingly difficult – and dangerous.
“I will work on this issue until every woman in Poland has access to reproductive rights. We always say our umbrella is ready,” she says, referring to the symbol of mass protests in 2016 – known as the Black Protests – where 90,000 black-clad Poles demonstrated against “the death” of their reproductive rights. “Who else will help these women?”