A Polish activist convicted for supplying an abortion pill: ‘There is no hope for the legalization of free abortion’

Justyna Wydrzynska laments that, though liberal parties campaigned for reproductive rights, one of them now wants to leave them out of the government coalition agreement being negotiated

Aborto Polonia
Polish abortion rights activist Justyna Wydrzynska, this Monday in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez

Justyna Wydrzynska became a symbol of the abortion rights movement in Poland after facing up to three years in prison for sending abortion pills to an abused woman. She was ultimately sentenced to eight months of community service, which she has appealed. In the country with the second most restrictive legislation in the EU, after Malta, abortion has become a central issue for liberal parties in the recent electoral campaign, especially in the case of the conservative Civic Coalition, of Donald Tusk, and the most progressive formation, the Left.

The women’s vote was essential for the liberal bloc’s victory against the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party in the October 15 elections. During the negotiations to form a government —although President Andrzej Duda has initially entrusted this task to Law and Justice— it has emerged, however, that one of the partners, the center-right Third Way coalition, formed by the agrarian party PSL and Polska 2050, opposes including abortion in the agreement. Wydrzynska, who received EL PAÍS this Monday at the headquarters of Amnesty International in Madrid —with which she collaborates in the Write for Rights campaign— is pessimistic about the possibilities of legalizing free abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Currently, it is only legal in the case of rape or danger to the mother’s life. The feminist movement, which now realizes that the Third Way was not clear during the campaign, is “surprised and angry,” she says.

Question. After the elections, Third Way has declared that it rejects including the legalization of abortion in the coalition agreement.

Answer. They said it before, during the election campaign. They didn’t actually say “we are against the legalization of abortion,” but they used the excuse of organizing a referendum. One day we saw [Wladyslaw] Kosiniak-Kamysz, the leader of the PSL, in Parliament and we asked him: “Do you really want society to decide whether we can have an abortion or not, to decide about our bodies?” And he said, to our faces: “Yes, I want everyone to decide.” People have voted for them because they have fairly liberal solutions for the economy, health, foreign affairs policy, or education. But they are not a good option for women’s rights. [Szymon] Holownia, of Polska 2050, has been against abortion since he started in politics.

Q. What do you think will happen? Donald Tusk and the Left have campaigned for the legalization of abortion.

A. Tusk said that if they won the elections they would legalize free abortion, without exceptions. What does “legalization of abortion” mean? What does he mean? Will it be legal until the 10th week, 12th, 14th, 18th? Only in hospitals, in the private sector, for surgery? Will a psychological or social report be mandatory? There was no concrete proposal behind this. It is nothing. But for people it is enough to hear something like that. On Wednesday the Civic Coalition called us, the Abortion Dream Team, together with Federa and Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), to a meeting in the Sejm [the lower house of Parliament]. They want to talk to us and probably prepare some proposals.

Q. So you think that abortion is not completely ruled out from the coalition agreement?

A. Politicians’ games are very unpleasant. The Civic Coalition has to propose something to not seem crazy. They will propose a bill that will not go forward because it does not have enough support. And Tusk will probably say it’s the fault of [Third Way leaders] Holownia and Kosiniak-Kamysz.

Q. What message are you going to bring to that meeting?

A. First, decriminalization is essential. Secondly, access to abortion must be broader. Not only through the health system, but we, as activists, should also be protected if we distribute pills, because we think we should do so if there is no legalization of abortion.

Q. What is the atmosphere in the feminist and abortion rights movement after Third Way’s position?

A. Many people are surprised, but I don’t understand why, because we had warned that the referendum proposal was an excuse. But, really, the movement is surprised. Surprised and angry.

Justyna Wydrzynska
The Polish activist for the right to abortion Justyna Wydrzynska, during an interview this Monday in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez

Q. And among the general population?

A. Among my friends not involved in politics, there are those who really believe that although Third Way is talking about the referendum, in the end they are going to vote in favor of legalization. Many people see the referendum as something positive because everyone can speak, but only the pregnant person should decide about her own body. I would feel more satisfied if they had said, “we are against legalizing free abortion, but we want to return to the previous law.”

Q. Now there is talk of returning to the previous law, which allowed abortion in the case of fetal malformation.

A. Yes, but again just after the elections, not before. It’s horrible. They call it commitment. And this is compromising women’s rights. Is allowing abortion on these three grounds [rape, danger to the health and life of the mother, and malformation of the fetus] a compromise while in the EU? A compromise would be the legalization of abortion, for example, up to 10 weeks.

Q. Would that be your goal, free abortion until the 10th week?

A. For me, the goal is legalization without giving reasons until the 12th week. This is what we fought for and what we will defend. We have given a lot of confidence to politicians and they have four years to promote this law.

Q. So do you still have confidence or faith?

A. No, but I give them the opportunity to do it in four years. I know it will be difficult. But I want to see changes. I accept it if they don’t legalize it. But I want to see changes in how politicians talk about abortion, how they behave, whether they protect activists.

Q. Is there a feeling of relief, that the worst, with the foreseeable end of the Law and Justice Government, has passed?

A. No, this is not over. We have a prosecutor appointed by the president, and he can come after us with a penal code that criminalizes abortion aid. Pro-abortion organizations continue to function. And they continue to denounce us. Just two weeks ago I was at the police station and they questioned me for having given information about how to have an abortion.

Q. But giving information is legal.

A. Yes, but it depends on the Prosecutor’s Office. If the prosecutor is anti-abortion, they can start an investigation. This is not over.

Q. In summary, the parties have campaigned on abortion. And it worked, because they won.

A. And now there will be no legalization of abortion.

Q. Is there hope?

A. (Thinks for a moment and sighs.) No, there is no hope.

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