Center for Reproductive Rights Condemns the Conviction of Polish Human Rights Defender
14 March 2023 (PRESS RELEASE) – On 14 March 2023 a District Court in Warsaw convicted human rights defender Justyna Wydrzyńska of the crime of ‘helping with an abortion’. Wydrzyńska was accused of helping a woman, who was in a relationship involving domestic violence, to access abortion medication in 2020.
Wydrzyńska has been sentenced to eight months of community service for 30 hours a month. This marks the first time in recent history in which a human rights defender in Europe has been prosecuted and convicted for assisting with access to abortion.
Poland’s law on abortion is one of the strictest in Europe. Poland and Malta are the only two European Union member states not to allow abortion on request. Instead Poland bans abortion in almost all circumstances. At least six women have died in Poland since 2020 after being denied life-saving care during pregnancy as a result of the near-total ban on abortion.
“Today’s conviction of human rights defender Justyna Wydrzyńska is deeply concerning,” said Senior Legal Adviser, Keina Yoshida. “Her prosecution sets a dangerous precedent for the targeting of human rights defenders in Poland who are working to advance reproductive rights and challenge Poland’s de facto ban on abortion.”
“Criminalizing abortion and prosecuting those providing assistance and support to people in need of health care is wrong. It contravenes international human rights treaties and flies in the face of modern medical practice and World Health Organization guidelines.”
“For decades, Polish law and practice on abortion has caused grave harm to women across the country. Now it is being used by Polish authorities to clamp down on the activities of human rights defenders and create a climate of fear and repression.”
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About the Center for Reproductive Rights: The Center for Reproductive Rights is a global human rights organization of lawyers and advocates who seek to protect reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world. Since its founding in 1992, the Center’s game-changing litigation, legal policy, and advocacy work across five continents has transformed how reproductive rights are understood by courts, governments, and human rights bodies. The Center has offices in New York, Washington, Bogota, Nairobi, and Geneva. The Center for Reproductive Rights presented an amicus to the court in Wydrzyńska’s case.
Today in Poland, abortion is only allowed in situations where a pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when there is a risk to a pregnant woman’s life or health. In practice abortion is almost impossible to access even when legal. Although people who undergo abortion in breach of the highly restrictive law are not criminalized under Polish law, anyone who provides abortion care or helps someone to obtain an abortion can be prosecuted. This contradicts World Health Organisation guidelines which clearly specify that abortion should never be criminalized and that no one who helps someone access abortion care should be subject to criminal prosecution.
In 2020, following a retrogressive ruling of the politicized Constitutional Tribunal, Poland became the only EU member state in recent history to remove a ground for legal abortion from its law heightening the chilling effect and stigma resulting from the pre-existing criminalization of abortion. Following the ruling dozens of complaints have been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.
Wydrzyńska is one of the four founders of the Abortion Dream Team, a collective that offers evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information to people in Poland who need abortion care and campaigns against abortion restrictions and stigma. The Center for Reproductive Rights presented an amicus to the court in her case.
In Europe, for more than eighty years, countries have moved steadily towards the adoption of progressive abortion laws and the removal of barriers impeding access to abortion. Today almost all European countries allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. For more information on the European abortion law and policies see the Center for Reproductive Rights Fact Sheet. For an overview of global abortion laws, see the Center’s World Abortion Laws map.
Despite this general progressive trend, regression has also taken place in Europe in recent years as efforts to restrict access to abortion care have increased in some countries, most notably in Poland.