Abortion pills at heart of reproductive rights challenges in Poland, US

An activist in Poland was convicted on Tuesday for helping a pregnant woman access abortion pills as a legal case in the US attempts to ban access to medical abortion altogether. In countries where reproductive rights are already under threat, abortion pills can provide discreet access to safe terminations, but legal battles are blocking access to the medicine.

Activist Justyna Wydrzynska was sentenced to eight months of community service on Tuesday after Polish courts found her guilty of helping another woman to have an abortion.

Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, with termination only allowed in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life or health.

Wydrzynska, who plans to appeal the ruling, was arrested in April 2022 for providing abortion pills to a woman named Anna who was around 12 weeks pregnant and a suspected victim of domestic violence.

“It happened in 2020 during the COVID crisis,” says Mara Clarke, co-founder of Supporting Abortions for Everyone (SAFE), a group that defends access to abortions in Europe. “The postal service wasn’t working as normal and we didn’t know if the medicine would arrive in time to help this woman if it was delivered from overseas.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that medical abortions – carried out using abortion pills – can be safely self-managed at home in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“Anna’s husband initially prevented her from going to get an abortion in Germany, and then confiscated her abortion pills after reading her messages,” says Clarke. He reported Wydrzynska to the police, who then unsearched him home.

The maximum penalty in Poland for providing help to carry out an abortion is three years in prison – this makes Wydrzynska’s case “the first time in Europe that an activist has risked being sent to prison for helping a woman who wanted to have an abortion”, says Clarke.

“The fact that Justyna Wydrzynska risked three years in prison for responding to a plea for help from a woman and from a mother who was trying to escape an abusive relationship is a crime in itself against human rights and the right to bodily autonomy.”

‘No other way’ 

“I’m not feeling guilty at all,” Wydrzynska said in a press conference on Wednesday. “I know I did right. When your reproductive rights are restricted in a country like Poland … there was no other way to help than to share the pills.”

The WHO recommends the use of two abortion pills, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, as an accessible and affordable means of terminating a pregnancy that can be used anywhere, for example at home instead of in a hospital. (Misoprostol can also be used as a stand-alone drug.)

In addition, the pills can also be taken without direct supervision from a medical supervisor. As such, global usage surged during the COVID pandemic when access to the usual health procedures was disrupted.

In France and the US, medical abortions now account for more than 50 per cent of terminations. In the UK and India, almost all terminations are now carried out using abortion pills.

The safety and relative ease of taking the medicine also makes abortion pills a useful asset to women seeking abortions in countries where the law limits access.

In Poland, where there are severe restrictions on procedural abortions conducted by medical practitioners, abortion pills offer a discreet lifeline to safe terminations. Typically, activist groups purchase the tablets to be sent by post from external countries via third-party organizations to void legal consequences.

In the US (which, along with Poland, is one of only four countries to make abortion legislation more restrictive in the past three decades) the national postal service has emerged as a key channel for providing abortion pills in states where legislation has blocked access to terminations.

‘Fear and intimidation

Yet this channel is now under nea w threat. On Wednesday, a US judge in Amarillo, Texas, heard arguments on banning sales of Mifepristone across the country – even in states where abortion is legal. This would mean that activists could no longer purchase the drug in states with more permissive laws to send to women in states with strict restrictions.

Anti-abortion activists who brought the case to federal court hope that banning the prescription drug would move the country closer to a total ban on the practice, especially as the presiding judge, Matthew Kacsmaryk, is a deeply conservative Christian with a personal history of opposition to abortion and a court record of favouring right-wing causes.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has urged the judge to reject the request because it would force women to have unnecessary surgical abortions and that will greatly increase cases at overburdened clinics.

“The public interest would be dramatically harmed by effectively withdrawing from the marketplace a safe and effective drug that has lawfully been on the market for 22 years,” the FDA said. Current US laws allow us the e of Mifepristone up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Another case in Texas has been brought by a man suing three women who he says helped his wife obtain abortion pills. He alleges the three women texted his former partner information about Aid Access, a group that provides abortion medication by mail, and that one of the women provided the pills to his ex-wife.

It is the first such lawsuit to be brought in the US since the Supreme Court overturned laws enshrining abortion as a fundamental right.

As in Poland, the case is a “terrifying example of how anti-abortion extremists use the judicial system as an instrument of fear and intimidation”, says Irene Donadio, a spokesperson for the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network.

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‘I would have done the same

Anna, the pregnant woman Wydrzynska gave abortion pills were never able to take the medicine. Days after her husband confiscated the pills, she miscarried. Yet in an open letter published on March 2 s, he wrote to Wydrzynska to express her thanks.

“It was an expression of humanity. Because in a situation where people who had a moral obligation – and in some cases a legal obligation – to help me instead stood up and washed their hands, only you gave me a hand.”

For Donadio, it is no surprise that abortion pills are at the heart of legal challenges against abortion on both sides of the Atlantic. The fact that they can be taken without medical supervision, and even be bought in pharmacies in many countries, makes them an unprecedented channel for female empowerment.

“Medical abortion is the result of medical progress that can be used to emancipate women and to protect their health,” says Donadio. “It is revolutionary. That’s why it’s so disturbing for certain forces because it allows women control over their bodies, over reproduction and over lives.”

But there is also strong support for access to medicine. In the US, if the federal judge does rule for a temporary ban on Mifepristone, the FDA would likely immediately appeal it, based on the drug’s history and its authority to regulate pharmaceuticals.

In Poland, politicians seem to be hearing the message. On March 6, Wydrzynska spoke in front of MPs from Poland’s centre-left party, Nowa Lewica, to defend her actions. The next day a law aiming to criminalize offering information about abortion failed to pass after being rejected by a large majority in parliament.

Activists are also unlikely to drop the cause. Whenever Wydrzynska has appeared in court in Warsaw, dozens of women have gathered holding banners bearing the message: “I would have done the same as Justyna.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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