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The Women Helping Ukrainian Refugees and Rape Victims Get Abortion Care in Poland

In yet another horrifying outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, women fleeing the war-torn country, many of whom have been sexually assaulted, are finding reproductive care not just impossible, but criminal

When Ukrainian refugees arrive at the Polish border — having fled Russia’s brutal invasion — they’re met by anti-abortion activists handing out flyers. Emblazoned under a graphic image of a miscarried fetus is a Mother Teresa quote. It reads: “Abortion is the greatest threat to peace. If a mother is allowed to kill her own child, what will stop you or me from killing each other?” It’s a cruel entry for Ukrainian women, many of whom have been forced to leave family members behind — and even crueler for those who are in need of urgent reproductive health care.

Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a surprise. Poland has a near-total ban on abortion that was further tightened in 2020. Anti-abortion activists staunchly hold up the restrictions, sending bomb and death threats to anyone who opposes them. For Ukrainian women, this is a stark contrast to their home country, where abortion is legal on request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Contraception is also much harder to get hold of in Poland, which has been ranked as the worst in Europe when it comes to contraception access. In Ukraine, oral contraceptives and the morning-after pill are readily available. All of this has led to a further crisis for Ukrainian women, many of whom are already traumatized by the ongoing war.

“It can be quite a shock when a woman from Ukraine arrives in Poland, having previously planned to terminate her pregnancy in Ukraine, or having found herself with another pregnancy that she doesn’t want to continue,” says Julie Taft, the humanitarian director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). “There’s a high level of distress finding out that access to services is basically impossible within Poland.”

The IPPF is one of many women’s health organizations supporting Ukrainian refugees to access safe reproductive health care. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the IPPF and its local partners have been working tirelessly to support health facilities both on-the-ground in Ukraine and in its bordering countries, including Poland. In addition to providing access to essential needs, medications, and services (like antiviral therapy for those with HIV, rape care for sexual assault survivors and obstetric services for pregnant women), the groups are also working to help women navigate the health systems in their refuge country. In some cases, they’re also providing financial support for women to access health services, prescriptions or contraceptives.

In Poland specifically, local women’s rights organization, ASTRA (part of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, or Federa), has set up a helpline for Ukrainian refugees to call if they need support. “We needed a separate phone number because there were so many enquiries for help,” explains Antonina Lewandowska, an ASTRA coordinator. The hotline is open three days a week and is run by Myroslava Marchenko, a Ukrainian OB/GYN and refugee. “She’s reporting tens of calls everyday, and is also being contacted via social media,” says Lewandowska. “I’d say we get around 150 inquiries for help a week.” Mara Clarke, the founder and director of the Abortion Support Network, says their already-established Poland-based helpine (which runs daily for 12 hours a day) received 326 calls from Ukrainian refugees in two months.

In recent weeks, there’s been a notable uptick in calls from women who’ve been raped while fleeing Ukraine, or even when they’ve crossed the border. The UN has regularly reported that gender-based violence (GBV) increases during times of conflict, with women and girls subjected to arbitrary killings, torture, sexual violence, forced marriage, and trafficking. GBV is also said to spike post-conflict, “due to the breakdown of the rule of law, social and family structures, and the ‘normalization’ of gender-based violence.” 

Lewandowska says the most common reports are of Russian soldiers raping women, particularly those from eastern Ukraine, though they’ve also seen cases of Polish men raping Ukrainian women, either at the border or after taking them in as refugees. “If they were raped, it takes some time for them to actually see that they’re pregnant,” Lewandowska explains. “That’s why we’re seeing an increase in these requests now, because the people who were raped likely weren’t aware of the pregnancy when coming to Poland.” 

She adds that the word “rape” is actually infrequently used by callers, who instead say things like, “Something happened to me when I was leaving.” “So many women aren’t even able to process it fast enough to name the experience,” Lewandowska continues. “Getting pregnant after a rape is an extremely traumatic event, and if you were raped while fleeing a war zone, watching your family being shot down in the streets, possibly losing your home, and having to leave your life behind, that rape becomes one of the extreme traumas that you’re suffering.”

While these stories are absolutely abhorrent, Clarke finds it frustrating that the mainstream media appears to have latched onto them when it comes to conversations about abortion in Poland. She says it’s important not to exclusively focus on these horrific cases, asserting that anybody who wants or needs an abortion — for whatever reason — should have access to one. “We’ve had people contact us and offer to donate, but only to raped people,” Clarke tells me. “We don’t ask our callers how they got pregnant or why they want abortions, and we refuse to feed into any discourse that says some women are more deserving of abortions than others.”

If a woman does call one of the established helplines in Poland seeking an abortion, she’ll be provided with information about her options. Both Lewandowska and Clarke take care to clarify Poland’s abortion law, which they say is regularly misinterpreted. “It’s not against the law to do your own abortion,” explains Clarke. “It’s against the law to help someone do an abortion. It’s also not against the law to give out information, which is how our helpline and Federa can operate.” 

This means that organizations can’t physically provide women with abortion pills, but can advise them on how to order pills online. Clarke adds that one of the key pieces of information they’ve been sharing is warning women that they can’t buy pills with cryptocurrency, in light of a number of scammers advertising fake pills.

What’s more, at the moment, the majority of women contacting the helpline are still early enough along in their pregnancies to take pills, but, Clarke says, “if you do the math, that’s going to change pretty soon.” As refugees in Poland can’t access surgical abortions — as the provider could be prosecuted — women’s organizations can only inform them of how to seek help to travel elsewhere. “The people in Poland do what they can legally do,” continues Clarke, “and anything that needs to happen in terms of sending pills or paying for somebody to travel from point A to point B, that happens outside of Poland.”

Things, understandably, don’t always work out this way, though. In March, Justyna Wydrzyńska, one of the founders of the Polish activist group, Aborcyjny Dream Team — part of Abortion Without Borders — became the first pro-choice activist to be criminally charged for breaking the country’s abortion law. Wydrzyńska is accused of providing abortion pills to a pregnant woman who asked for help after her abusive husband wouldn’t allow her to travel for a termination. Wydrzyńska allegedly sent the pills to the woman, but they were intercepted by the husband, who contacted the police. The woman never got her abortion, but Clarke tells me that Wydrzyńska now faces three years in prison.

“This case against Justyna is a case against all of us,” says Clarke. “The Polish government is telling anyone who might help somebody obtain or even not obtain an abortion that they’re coming for you. They’re saying that they’re going to criminalize people for being compassionate.”

In Ukraine, women are also having difficulty accessing abortion care. “The challenges that we’re hearing are related to the supply chain for medical abortion pills,” explains Taft. “It’s also about health workers being refocused on other acute medical needs, and the fact that some health facilities have been destroyed.” Taft says the IPPF has been sending abortion pills and surgical abortion equipment to Ukraine, in light of the shortages.

Lewandowska says she’s also heard that many women who’ve been raped by Russian soldiers have stayed in Kyiv, despite the war raging, because they’re aware of Poland’s anti-abortion law, and are “terrified to flee the country.” “They’d rather stay in the warzone and find out they’re pregnant than be stuck in Poland where it’s more difficult to obtain an abortion,” she tells me. Lewandowska does, however, make a point to say there’s no media report to support this claim. Although, there are reports that more Ukrainian refugees are turning back from Poland than entering the country — but there hasn’t been any confirmation that this relates to abortion.

For those outside of Ukraine and Poland who are feeling helpless, the best way to support women seeking abortions in dangerous and difficult circumstances is to donate to the grassroots organizations on the ground. “We will take your money,” says Clarke. “In fact, we’re almost entirely funded from private individuals giving us a tenner here and a fiver there, which is a beautiful story. If someone calls us and thanks us, we’re like, ‘Don’t thank us, thank the thousands of people who’ve given us a little bit of money to help you today.’” 

Still, it shouldn’t be up to the public and grassroots organizations to support and fund terminations. Safe, accessible and legal abortions should be available for anyone who wants or needs them (also looking at you, Supreme Court). As Taft concludes, “We need the political will of governments to protect the rights of refugees to their reproductive health.”