What the U.S. Could Learn from Abortion Without Borders

Last month, an abortion-rights activist named Justyna Wydrzyńska stood in a courtroom in Warsaw, Poland, and described her abortion. Her lips were painted a defiant red; her voice cracked at times, but she was unapologetic. When she was thirty-three, she said, she was in an abusive marriage and learned that she was pregnant. She struggled to find accurate information online and had to order three packs of abortion pills—the first two, from the black market, were duds. She was terrified that she would bleed out or fall unconscious in front of her three children, who were too young to call an ambulance. Wydrzyńska, who is forty-seven, is now part of a coalition of activists called Abortion Without Borders. She was on trial for helping another Polish woman get an abortion.

Abortion was legal when Poland was under Communist control, but, in 1993, the predominantly Catholic country outlawed most abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal conditions, and risk to the life of the patient. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning Roe v. Wade and giving states the ability to ban abortion, the diverse, international coalition of Abortion Without Borders may model an effective approach to abortion-rights activism in a post-Roe America—and also its risks. Wydrzyńska’s legal troubles started in 2020, when a pregnant mother told her that her husband was abusive and requested abortion pills. Wydrzyńska sent the mother pills that she kept in her medicine cabinet in case of an emergency. But the woman’s husband, who had been monitoring her cell phone, called the police, Wydrzyńska said. “I know very well how it feels when somebody uses children to take revenge, to manipulate, to control people like me—mothers,” Wydrzyńska told the court. Later she told reporters, “You have to help your sisters.”

In 2006, Wydrzyńska created a Web site and online forum called Kobiety w Sieci (Women on the Net) to share information about sex, contraception, and abortion in Polish. In 2014, a Polish-born activist named Kinga Jelińska co-founded Women Help Women, a non-governmental organization in Amsterdam that mails abortion pills to people in Poland and other countries. In 2016, Wydrzyńska and Jeliń́ska, along with the researcher Natalia Broniarczyk and the lawyer Karolina Więckiewicz, created the Abortion Dream Team, which educates Poles on the safe use of abortion pills. (The recommended regimen is about ninety-five per cent effective in ending a pregnancy; rates of complication are under one per cent, according to the Guttmacher Institute.) Members of the Dream Team also directed people to Ciocia Basia, which pays for first-trimester abortions in Germany, and Abortion Network Amsterdam, which pays for second-trimester abortions in the Netherlands. And after Ireland legalized abortion in 2018, the London-based Abortion Support Network, which is modelled after U.S. abortion funds, started looking into ways to help people in Poland seeking abortions.

In late 2019, all six groups partnered to create something that would be “much more than the sum of its parts,” Mara Clarke, the U.S.-born founder of Abortion Support Network, said. On a cold and gray December day, around forty supporters, wearing sashes that read “Abortion Without Borders” in Polish and English, walked in silence from a Warsaw cultural center to the city’s central train station, dragging suitcases in solidarity with those forced to travel for abortion. Organizers said that in its first year, the coalition helped more than five thousand people obtain abortions, and in its second, it helped thirty-four thousand. During the pandemic, when fewer buses, trains, and flights were running, demand surged; at least one woman took a train to the Poland-Germany border, walked across, and was picked up by Ciocia Basia. Another woman, who needed a later abortion, was driven to the Netherlands; both she and the driver quarantined for two weeks when they got home.

Today, when someone in Poland needs an abortion, they can contact any member of Abortion Without Borders or call its hotline, which operates every day between 8 A.M. and 8 P.M. On the phone, a staffer will offer information and, if needed, refer the caller to the relevant coalition member. Organizations outside of Poland can help callers obtain pills or, if there is a reason to avoid pills—a partner or parent will find out, for example, or no safe mailing address is available—refer them to a clinic. Abortion Without Borders is sprawling and decentralized by design: it takes advantage of the patchwork of abortion restrictions in different parts of Europe. By varying its tactics based on the availability and legality of different types of abortion, the network builds on each organization’s strengths and compensates for its vulnerabilities. “It enables us to better protect our colleagues on the ground in Poland, as well as provide a wider range of options for the people contacting us,” Clarke told me. This approach could light one path forward for the many pro-choice groups that work in the U.S.

When the pandemic began, Poland’s conservative government, led by the Law and Justice Party, took advantage of the country’s lockdown to revive consideration of an unpopular proposal to further restrict abortion access. In October, 2020, the constitutional court ruled that abortions related to fetal conditions—the reason for almost all of the roughly thousand legal abortions in Poland each year—were unconstitutional. Some anti-abortion activists consider this rationale for abortion to constitute eugenics. Although the ruling took several months to go into effect, Poles immediately swarmed the streets in protest, many carrying “Abortion Without Borders” signs that featured the hotline’s phone number. Progressive Polish politicians held up similar signs in parliament and on a popular debate show. Someone with a dry sense of humor graffitied the number in black spray paint on a Warsaw church. A historian whose dissertation was honored by the Polish government announced in a newspaper that he was donating his cash prize, 25,920 zloty, or around $5,800, to the network. Someone—the activists still don’t know who—also took out billboards to advertise the hotline. Abortion Without Borders was swamped with calls. “We were ready,” Broniarczyk told me. “We had experience, we had money, we had the network, we had places to send people.”

Despite its name, Abortion Without Borders must pay close attention to the boundaries between European states. The Dream Team can’t legally send pills within Poland, but, in a country where stigma compounds anti-abortion laws, it aims to be “the strongest social voice for change,” Jelińska told me; the group once wore T-shirts that read “Abortion Is Okay” on the cover of a Polish women’s magazine. The Netherlands’ progressive laws make it a global haven for people who need second-trimester abortions; Abortion Network Amsterdam has helped patients from across Europe and from such countries as Brazil, Oman, Turkey, and India. “When you go in the parking lot, it’s like the United Nations,” a volunteer said, of two clinics in particular. “You see license plates from the whole of Europe, because it is such a special place on the abortion map.” After the Polish court decision, Abortion Network Amsterdam began receiving five or six Polish clients every week, instead of one or two. Within a few months, the organization’s volunteers were burned out. They asked partner organizations to take over their hotline and logistical work so that they could recover.

Each Abortion Without Borders member plays a distinct role in the network, depending on the legal context in which it operates. Abortion Support Network, which provides much of the funding for its partners in Abortion Without Borders, is a registered U.K. charity that can accept donations from individuals, who provide the bulk of the organization’s funding, and governments, such as the ten thousand euros that Belgium donated. (Though many governments condemned Poland and pledged funds, Belgium was the only one to send funds—an amount that barely covers ten second-trimester abortions, an unimpressed activist in Amsterdam told me.) Ciocia Basia and Abortion Network Amsterdam began as feminist collectives, run in part by queer volunteers; Clarke said that these collaborations have taught her to be more intersectional. Abortion Without Borders is also connected to activists in Austria and the Czech Republic, where patients can obtain abortions. Clarke has been “whispering in the ears” of people in Hungary and Romania, which have conservative leaders who could restrict abortion.

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