Polly Vernon: Poland Is Compassionate To Refugees, But Draconian On Abortion Rights

'A government can be awful and wonderful at the same time, endlessly decent in one respect, terribly cruel in another.'

Abortion rights in Poland

by Polly Vernon |

You may not have heard of Justyna Wydrzyńska, the Polish abortion rights activist currently on trial for helping another Polish woman have an abortion by procuring the necessary pills – mifepristone and misoprostol – for her.

Justyna’s name has got a little lost in all the other headlines (Ukraine, Rishi Sunak’s non-dommed missus, cost of living, Will Smith…). So a brief precis: since January 2021, Poland has had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Pregnant women are condemned to carry to term babies already dying in their wombs; in November 2021, a 30-year-old woman died of septic shock after doctors refused to abort the foetus she was miscarrying – a foetus that was known to have multiple unsurvivable defects – because they could still detect its heartbeat. (It was under similar circumstances that Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital in 2012.)

In a desperate attempt to help, four Polish women – Karolina Więckiewicz, Natalia Broniarczyk, Kinga Jelińska and Justyna Wydrzyńska – formed The Abortion Dream Team, a superhero-like collective of lawyers and activists that devotes itself to supporting Polish women seeking abortions and protesting the draconian law. Justyna was charged in 2021 for helping a woman – pregnant by a violent partner – to obtain abortion pills. Her trial is ongoing at the time of writing and she faces a maximum prison term of three years if convicted.

This story is frustrating, outrageous, unjust, even if you haven’t ever found yourself pregnant by an abusive partner – but, as it happens, I have. It was years ago, he was awful, but I was lucky enough to be in England at the time, because I got the abortion I needed and none of the calm, deft medical staff who tended to me faced legal repercussions because of it. Good for me. Shit for Justyna and those Polish women who need abortions.

With painful timing, the Government here has just made permanent the emergency telemedicine measures it introduced in Covid, allowing women in England and Wales to take both doses of the abortion pill at home – a compassionate, practical development that makes Justyna’s prosecution even more desperate.

Is it harsh to knock Poland on abortion at the exact time it’s doing so much to help Ukrainian refugees? Poland has taken in 2.6 million of them to date – 60% of all those who’ve fled – while the UK has taken in just 12,000. The way the Polish treat arriving refugees is beyond amazing in many ways – but those refugee women need access to abortion too (some after being raped by Russian soldiers). A government can be awful and wonderful at the same time, endlessly decent in one respect, terribly cruel in another – y’know: not unlike humanity at large. So we can definitely admire Poland’s response to the refugee crisis, while taking care to learn Justyna Wydrzyńska’s name and fate.

To help Justyna, visit asn.org.uk/iamjustyna

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