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A Polish woman is on trial for helping someone get an abortion. Here’s why it matters

Justyna Wydrzyńska faces up to three years in prison for trying to help a woman end her pregnancy. She says she's a cautionary tale for people in the United States.
A woman joins a protest organized by NYC for abortion rights outside Saint Pauls Roman Catholic Church in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, on October 9, 2021.
A woman joins a protest organized by NYC for abortion rights outside Saint Pauls Roman Catholic Church in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, on October 9, 2021.Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images

A woman in Poland is on trial for helping another woman access abortion care — and experts say her experience could foreshadow what could become more common in the United States as more states criminalize abortion.

Justyna Wydrzyńska, 47, faces up to three years in prison for giving another woman abortion pills — oral medications that stop and help the body pass an unwanted pregnancy. The pills are classified as "essential medicines" by the World Health Organization, and studies show they are safer than Viagra and Tylenol.

In the United States, medication abortions account for more than half of all abortion procedures.

Wydrzyńska volunteers at Abortion Without Borders, a network of advocacy groups across Europe that helps people get abortion care. In 2020, she tells TODAY Parents, she was working the organization's hotline when she received a call from a woman who said she was a victim of domestic violence. The caller was pregnant and wanted an abortion, but she said her husband would not allow it and threatened to call the police on her if she travelled to get a legal abortion in another country.

In Poland, abortion is only permitted in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the pregnant person is in danger.

Protest Against The Abortion Ban In Poland After Death Of Pregnant Woman
People protest in Poland in 2021 after a 30-year-old woman, Iza, died of septic shock in her 22nd week of pregnancy after being denied an abortion despite a dying fetus. Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wydrzyńka said she saw herself in this woman's story. She told TODAY Parents she had some abortion pills of her own and immediately decided to offer them to the woman. She then sent her the pills she had in her medicine cabinet.

"She was afraid and she didn't know what to do," Wydrzyńka told TODAY Parents via Zoom. "I felt this was the moment I had to offer the pills. So I did it. It was a very simple decision. I knew how hard it was for her, to be in this situation with violence in the home. So I empathized with her, and just did it."

Related: What moms who provide abortion care think about their jobsWydrzyńka knew the risks, but said she did not know that the woman's husband was monitoring her communication. He called the police, who confiscated the pills from the woman before she could take them and later searched Wydrzyńka's home. In 2021, she was charged under Polish law with “helping with an abortion” and “possession of medicines without authorization for the purpose of introducing them into the market."

"I did it because I thought nobody has to be pregnant in a situation she doesn't want to be in," Wydrzyńka said. "We are not incubators for anybody. She was forced to continue the pregnancy, and nobody should be in that situation. Nobody."

Wydrzyńka attended her first trial hearing on April 8 in Warsaw, Poland. Her case has been further postponed until July 14, and she faces up to three years in prison if found guilty. She says what is happening to her should serve as a warning for people in the United States, especially as more states pass anti-abortion laws and the Supreme Court prepares to rule on a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that, if upheld, will essentially overturn Roe v Wade.

"Our legal regime does not criminalize women for getting their own abortions," Kinga Jelińska, a member of the Abortion Dream Team, a Polish group of advocates launched in 2016 and a subgroup of Abortion Without Borders, told TODAY Parents. "Instead, they criminalize everybody who is helping in order to impact all the support systems."

Many new U.S. state laws on abortion function the same way. In Texas, the still-standing 6-week abortion ban has deputized citizens to sue anyone they believe has aided someone in obtaining abortion care. Similar laws have passed in Idaho and Oklahoma, with more on the way in a number of conservative states.

A girl holds a placard as protesters rally to support abortion rights in New York in 2021.Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images

After the Kentucky legislature overrode Governor Andy Beshear's veto, the state enacted a slew of anti-abortion measures that has effectively banned all abortions, making Kentucky the first state in decades without access to legal abortion care.

Conservative lawmakers in Missouri introduced a bill that, if signed into law, would make it illegal for people to "aid or abet" others receiving abortion care, including those who help people travel out of state to obtain an abortion.

"This is a cautionary tale for the United States," Jelińska said. "It's really a movement. It's in Latin America. It's in Asia. It's in Africa. It's here in Poland. And Justyna is the first prominent public activist who is facing a trial in Europe. We think it's extremely important that everyone knows what happened, because that's exactly how we have to fight. We are fighting for every single person, including those in the United States. And we know, for a fact, that this is happening in the U.S., too."

The United States has groups similar to Abortion Without Borders that help people get abortion care, and even help those going through miscarriage. There has been a recent increase in the U.S. in people going through "self-managed" abortions. The Miscarriage + Abortion Hotline offers confidential medical support for people self-managing an abortion or miscarriage; the Repro Legal Helpline offers confidential legal information. In addition, there are abortion funds in many places that aim to help people get care.

Related: New Tennessee bill would allow rapists’ families, friends to sue if victims have an abortion

In 2013, a report published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law studied 413 cases from 1973 to 2005 in which women were prosecuted for the outcomes of their pregnancies. The study found that 71% of the women prosecuted were low-income and 52% were Black women.

In addition, the National Advocates for Pregnant Woman, a non-profit civil rights and health advocacy group, has tracked 1,254 cases of women being prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes since Roe v Wade was legalized.

In 2013, a 33-year-old woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after she had a miscarriage and left the fetal remains in a dumpster. In 2021, a woman in Oklahoma was arrested after experiencing a miscarriage and admitting she was using methamphetamine while pregnant. She was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in state prison.

And this year, a woman in Texas was arrested and charged with murder for having an alleged medication abortion. She has since been released from jail and the charges were dropped.

Women's March "Hold The Line For Abortion Justice" At The Supreme Court During Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs Hearing
People hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on December 1, 2021 Leigh Vogel / Getty Images

Jelińska says Wydrzyńka's situation will also influence efforts to assist Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia's war. Multiple reports of Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian women have surfaced. The New York Times reported that Russian forces kept a group of women and young girls in a basement in Bucha for 25 days while they raped them, and according to Ukraine’s official ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisovanine, nine of them are now pregnant.

Jelińska says the Abortion Without Borders hotline has seen an influx of calls from Ukrainians asking for help in obtaining abortion care.

"We have already had at least 45 people who have called from Ukraine, needing abortions," Jelińska explained. "We're proud to say we haven't denied anybody on account of not enough funding in order to get people to another place."

Related: What is a medication abortion? 5 people share their experiences

Wydrzyńka said that she is afraid of what's to come — when asked if she is scared of going to jail and leaving her children behind, she broke down, crying as she held her face in her hands.

"It is so unfair," she sobbed.

Still, she said she doesn't regret her decision, and has a message for anyone else faced with a similar situation.

"We have to help other people, no matter what the consequences will be," Wydrzyńka said. "There are a lot of people in situations like mine who will help you. You will not be alone. I am not alone. I am happy I'm not alone. So be brave, and do not be afraid."