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Poland’s ban on abortion forces many to seek help in Germany

Poland’s ban on abortion forces many to seek help in Germany

For Zuzu*, an activist with the Berlin-based group Ciocia Basia that assists people seeking an abortion in neighbouring Poland, fielding calls is just one of many responsibilities she carries out.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Zuzu and other activists working with partner organisation Abortion Without Borders (AWB) told Al Jazeera that the number of calls they are receiving has increased.

That is due to the fact that women from Ukraine find themselves displaced to a country that restricts the procedure.

Between March and July, AWB received about 550 calls from women in Ukraine – a figure likely to be higher given that some women call through a Polish translator.

Zuzu, who did not want to share her full name, told Al Jazeera that while they never ask people for a reason behind seeking an abortion, many women from Ukraine are sharing their stories.

“During one of my first conversations with a woman from Ukraine through Google translate, she wrote that she was in Poland and a couple of weeks before had found out that her husband had been killed,” she said. “So in her current situation and without her husband, she would be unable to keep the pregnancy.”

“Something that we hear often from people from Ukraine is that they had wanted the pregnancies, but because they have no sense of security, stability or predictability in terms of their future, the best and most responsible thing that they can do for their existing children and families is to have an abortion,” said Kinga Jelinska, the Polish co-founder and executive director of Women Help Women, a partner AWB organisation.

Zuzu said for women from Ukraine, arriving in a country with less access to abortion than Ukraine has added to their precarious situation.

“When they ended up in Poland as refugees, they not only had to deal with the loss of their homes and livelihoods, but also their reproductive rights,” she said.

The structural racism in Poland, Zuzu said, means that refugees without Ukrainian passports, including people of colour, are treated very differently from people who are white and have Ukrainian passports.

“Many have had to travel further and we have supported those who have ended up in Berlin, including Nigerian students,” she said.

Near-total ban

Against the backdrop of a near-total abortion ban, pregnant women losing their lives, the criminilisation of a pro-abortion activist and a new pregnancy register, Poland’s record on reproductive rights is one of the worst in Europe.

While self-managing the procedure or possessing abortion pills is not a crime, anyone who helps pregnant people with an abortion outside the two permitted grounds may face up to three years in prison.

It is a reality that prominent abortion activist and feminist Justyna Wydrzynska is currently facing.

Wydrzynska – who co-founded Abortion Dream Team, also an AWB partner, in Poland six years ago – is facing trial for “aiding and abetting abortion” after she sent pills to a pregnant woman reported to be in an abusive marriage two years ago.

Speaking to Al Jazeera ahead of her July trial date, which has since been adjourned to October, she said: “My case is the first time an abortion activist is facing trial in Europe and one of the lessons I would like other activists to take from this is that if they find themselves in a situation like mine, is that we know how to react. We have a lot of international support and organisations around us now, which wasn’t the case before.”

Justyna Wydrzyńska, a pro-choice activist facing trial in Poland
Justyna Wydrzyńska, an activist facing trial in Poland [Courtesy of Grzegorz Zukowski]

The situation in Poland has led to the increased mobilisation of activist groups such as AWB, which was founded in 2019.

AWB said it received nearly 32,000 calls in its second year compared to about 5,000 within the first year of its founding.

Partner organisation Ciocia Basia said that when it first started operating six years ago, it would help about two people a month in Berlin, a figure that has since risen to up to eight people a week. The small volunteer-led team assists across all areas, from organising clinic appointments and providing language translation to helping with accommodation and finances.

If the person is beyond the time frame that is permissible for an abortion in Germany, the group will work with the wider network, which extends across Europe and into countries that have different time frames, including, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Austria, where people can have an anonymous birth.

“This network means that we never have to say no to a woman who can’t have the baby at any stage,” Zuzu said.

Stressful path

Dr Alicia Baier, a Berlin-based physician who co-founded Doctors for Choice, told Al Jazeera that this is a difficult path for people.

“This puts them under a lot of psychological stress because they are in a situation where there is a timeline. Most women say that living with an unwanted pregnancy is horrible because the pregnancy is growing in their body and one day can feel like one week,” she said.

Within a day of the United States Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v Wade – legislation that guaranteed the right to abortion in the US since 1973 – the Polish parliament rejected a bill that would have liberalised abortion.

Jelinska, who speaks openly about the two abortions she has had, said there were patterns emerging in countries with right-wing governments or ultra-conservative influence.

“It’s a purely ideological move over our flesh and body. And what we have seen again with the situation in Ukraine, you should have the right to determine when it’s a good time to have a baby,” she said.

Following the US Supreme Court decision, activists and medical practitioners say there are increased concerns about how the Polish path could be pursued in a post-Roe v Wade America.

Grassroots support

Yet they say they will continue their grassroots support, as well their calls for liberalisation and decriminalisation amidst remaining restrictions across Europe.

“Every time they strengthen the anti-abortion law in Poland, they are counterproductive,” Zuzu said.

“While they deprive us of the right to abortion, there is always a major response from activists and more people protesting. This also translates into more knowledge about abortion, access and donations.”

Dr Baier added that the situation in Poland and the US could happen anywhere.

“So it is important we keep fighting for reproductive rights. Globally, in place like Argentina, Ireland, Colombia and Mexico, there are big feminist movements and abortion is one of their major topics,” she said.

“And they have achieved big steps in terms of liberalising abortion. In Europe, we have seen legislation updated, so many countries are going forward. And if places like Germany and Poland don’t catch up, they will be left behind.”

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