Poland’s strict abortion laws leave few safe options for women

Poland has some of Europe’s strictest abortion laws, and further curbs in recent years have led to mass protests. But many in the historically Catholic nation are staunch supporters of government policy. Now, in what is a European first, one activist in Poland is facing jail time for helping another woman terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Special correspondent Rosie Birchard reports from Warsaw.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Long before the U.S. Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, Poland was rewriting rules on reproductive rights.

    Poland has some of Europe's strictest abortion laws. And further curbs in recent years have led to mass protests, but many in the historically Catholic nation are staunch supporters of government policy.

    Now, in what is a European first, one activist in Poland is facing jail time for helping another woman terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

    Special correspondent Rosie Birchard reports.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    Poland, home to some 20 million women and girls, has the lowest official abortion rate in the European Union.

    For those who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy, there are few places to turn to find an official way out.

    From this Warsaw apartment, Justyna Wydrzynska is a lifeline for Polish women looking for loopholes in their country's ban on most abortions. She tells them how to find pills online to self-administer, or travel to clinics abroad, actions that fall within the gray zone of Poland's restrictions.

  • Justyna Wydrzynska, Abortion Rights Activist:

    People who want to do abortions, they didn't disappear. They are here in this country. But they don't have a place to go and talk about — openly talk about their plans.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    But, in 2020, the activist broke the law and sent abortion pills directly to a woman who said she was trapped in an abusive relationship and feeling desperate, something Wydrzynska herself once experienced.

  • Justyna Wydrzynska:

    I knew exactly what she was going through. I knew exactly how hard it was for her to fight for her, like, dignity, to fight for her rights to stop this pregnancy. And this was my only motivation to really share my own pills with her.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    The 47-year-old mother of three was reported to police and now faces up to three years behind bars for the criminal offense of aiding abortion.

    It wasn't always this way for women here in Warsaw. Under communist rule decades ago, abortion was broadly accessible. At the time, the Catholic Church was seen as an ally to the anti-communist resistance, fighting for democracy.

  • Jan Wojciechowski, Catholic Priest:

    Church was the oasis of freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of expression of own ideas and so on.

    So, at the beginning of the 90s, this experience of church, I think it was very quite alive, quite vivid among people.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    As the Iron Curtain fell, the church's view that life begins at conception gained political ground. Around 90 percent of Poles are Catholics.

    In 1993, abortion was declared illegal, except in cases of rape or incest, risks to the mother's health, or fetal defects. Then, in 2020, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal struck down the exception for fetal abnormalities, described by the country's anti-abortion rights movement as eugenic abortions.

    Chanting promises to protect their sisters if the government will not, thousands took to the streets to decry what they called a de facto total ban that could force women to carry to term babies that would never survive.

    Gynecologist Rafal Kuzlik says the shift has left some doctors like him struggling to find out just what's allowed and what's not.

  • Dr. Rafal Kuzlik, Gynecologist:

    We are afraid of doing anything what is called abortion, because we don't know what will happen. Even if we see OK, it is legally, should be legally, we are afraid if maybe someone tells us, no, it wasn't legal, you should check it.

    But we have no time. So we are afraid to do it. So we do — we say, I'm sorry, I cannot do it for you.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    The Polish government told us it issued guidance to make clear to doctors the circumstances under which they can facilitate terminations and urged practitioners to be unafraid to take action based on their medical knowledge.

    Lawmaker Bartlomiej Wroblewski says his country's rules reflect societal values.

  • Bartlomiej Wroblewski, Polish Parliamentarian:

    Polish law is very similar to the majority of democratic states 30 or 40 years ago, because we have still classic understanding of human rights.

    Right to life extends to the people who are not healthy, to disabled people. And we should not exclude from the right to life people who are weaker.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    Wroblewski is part of the ruling Law and Justice Party, which, with its anti-abortion rights stance, has secured a majority in Poland's Parliament.

    Another seismic shift began here in late February. Millions of Ukrainians have arrived in train stations like this one, fleeing Russia's war across the border. Poland's efforts to offer homes to Ukrainian refugees have been internationally lauded. Welcome points like these are here waiting for the new arrivals, and they are offered quick access to the job market, education and health care.

    Among them are women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies. This under-the-radar family planning information center says it has received hundreds of enquiries from Ukrainian women, some of whom say they were raped by Russian soldiers.

    It's the latest flash point in a heated debate. Conservative activist Kaja Godek has been handing out flyers printed in Ukrainian to send a message to refugees.

    Kaja Godek, Polish Life and Family Foundation: Basically, it says that, once you cross the border, you are safe from the war and your children are safe too. And if anyone presses you to have an abortion, you have to call the police.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    Though rape victims are legally allowed abortions in Poland, Godek questions Ukrainians' claims.

  • Kaja Godek:

    Even if you have the law which allows you to kill a baby coming from a rape, how do you know it is a rape? Most of the women didn't come from Eastern Ukraine. Most of them came from the western part of the country.

    And there is no war in the western part. So, there are multiple questions about this kind of thing. I think that feminists were trying to use this situation to change the Polish law, saying that they help Ukrainians.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    The Foundation for Women and Family Planning says its mission is to support women in need.

    Kamila Ferenc, Foundation for Women and Family Planning: Polish law is too restrictive to allow to have an abortion for a Ukrainian woman without shame, without complications, without legal barriers.

    We discovered that Ukrainian women don't want to speak up about their war rapes. They just want to interrupt their unwanted pregnancy.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    This national culture clash has also put Poland on a collision course with the European Union. Abortion is accessible in 25 out of the 27 E.U. countries, though gestational time limits vary.

    Only the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta has stricter laws than Poland. A majority of E.U. lawmakers voted to condemn Poland's abortion laws in 2021 and last week. The U.S. was next on their list for public denunciation after the Supreme Court's decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade.

  • Iratxe Garcia Perez, European Parliamentarian (through translator):

    In the most powerful country in the world, women have no right to decide over their own bodies. It is decided upon by men, old men, at that, who are entrenched in a mind-set of the past.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    Back in Warsaw, Justyna's criminal case carries on at court, and though a conviction may loom, her convictions remain unchanged.

  • Justyna Wydrzynska:

    When there is restrictive abortion law, there is only more unsafe abortions. That's it.

  • Rosie Birchard:

    For now, the phone keeps ringing, and Justyna keeps picking up.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Rosie Birchard in Warsaw.

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