Washington to Warsaw: The Global Challenge to Abortion Rights

From the persecution of activist Justyna Wydrzyńska in Poland to the overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States, abortion rights are under attack around the world. On International Safe Abortion Day 2023, we ask you to join us in showing support for the right to access reproductive healthcare.

September 28 marks International Safe Abortion Day, a day when people and organisations around the world promote the importance of access to abortion care. Having access to safe abortion is a human right, and it has consequences far beyond what many people see. It’s closely tied to the issue of gender equality, the rights to health and wellbeing, and even the right to life.

The right of a woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy … is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights.

UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, A/HRC/38/46 (2018), para. 35

Is access to abortion improving?

Lots of countries have improved access to abortion care over the last few decades, but there are many others where it’s still neglected. Even more worryingly, we’re now seeing instances where opponents of the right to abortion have succeeded in undoing progress already made, or where they’re pushing for unprecedented restrictions.

Poland: Justyna’s case

In March 2023, a Polish court sentenced Justyna Wydrzyńska to eight months’ community service for assisting with an abortion. A long-time defender of the right to safe abortion, Justyna’s crime was providing abortion pills to a woman — ‘Ania’ — who was 12 weeks pregnant and trapped in a domestic violence situation.

Justyna Wydrzyńska holds a banner with the message 'Abortion is a human right'
Polish authorities sentenced Justyna Wydrzyńska to eight months’ community service for attempting to help someone obtain an abortion.

Justyna’s case sets a dangerous precedent. Her friend and fellow activist, Kinga Jelinska, explains its significance for the movement for abortion rights in Poland and beyond.

Ania’s controlling partner set a trap for her at home; he called the police, who confiscated the abortion pills. This is how Justyna got caught. This was the first lawsuit against an activist helping in medical abortion in the history of Europe.

Kinga Jelinska

Refusing safe abortion puts people in danger

Poland introduced its ban on abortions in 2021. In theory, Poland permits abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when it endangers the mother’s life. In reality though, it’s very difficult to get a safe abortion even in these extreme circumstances. Since 2021, multiple women in Poland have died from complications when the authorities refused to grant them a safe abortion.

Justyna’s activism is a response to this situation, which has grown increasingly desperate in recent years. She’s one of the cofounders of the Abortion Dream Team, a collective of feminist activists helping people access safe abortion. To combat the silence, hostility, and stigma these people face, Justyna and her team offer information, support, and compassion.

I do not want anyone to go alone through a dangerous process of an unsafe abortion when it is possible to do it safely, without stigma. I don’t want any of us to be forced to abandon her right to freedom and self-determination. I was driven by the will to help when no one else wanted to or could help.

Justyna Wydrzyńska

Justyna’s persecution is part of a larger pattern

Poland isn’t the only place where abortion rights are under attack. In 2022 the US shocked human rights defenders everywhere when it overturned Roe v Wade. This instantly removed protection for abortion rights across the country.

Roe v Wade had guaranteed Americans the right to safe abortion since 1973. This decision wound back the clock on progress for reproductive rights by nearly 50 years, something many had considered unthinkable.

Abortion rights in Australia

Abortion is now decriminalised across Australia following years of protests. However, there’s much we need to do so that it is affordable and accessible to those who need it.

Reproductive rights not-for-profit Marie Stopes Australia has called abortion access a “postcode lottery.” Particularly for people in rural areas, abortions are often hard to access and expensive, costing thousands of dollars.

Stigma around abortion persists in the community and among medical professionals, which limits people’s access to reproductive healthcare.

After sustained advocacy this year, medical abortions are now easier to access in Australia. A senate inquiry led to the rules being changed to remove restrictions for doctors and pharmacists prescribing abortion pills.

Just this month, Western Australia removed abortion from its criminal code, and it will now be easier to access. We know that when we campaign for accessible reproductive healthcare, we can make change happen.

Sign our petition to support Justyna and defend reproductive rights

As part of our Write for Rights campaign, we are calling on the Polish authorities to immediately overturn Justyna’s sentence. By taking a stand for Justyna, you are joining a global movement to support reproductive rights.