On a rainy day in May, in the Polish coastal city of Gdańsk, in a high-ceilinged room on the second floor of an unremarkable building, 16 women and five men sat in mismatched office chairs around a long table, waiting to learn how to administer a medical abortion. Before the workshop began in earnest, one of the speakers, Karolina Więckiewicz, turned to a bald, bearded man on her left, whose papers spread out in front of him suggested he might be from a prosecutor’s office, and asked him to stop recording.
“I am not ashamed of anything; I have nothing to hide,” she told him, her glare equal parts distrust and contempt. “But I don’t want to cause discomfort for the people here who want to ask a question.” After several minutes of tense debate, he agreed to stop, although Karolina believes she saw him hit record again before turning the phone face down.
The three women holding the workshop—Karolina, 38, Natalia Broniarczyk, 35, and Justyna Wydrzyńska, 45—had every reason to be concerned: They counsel Polish women on how to find and take abortion pills, and conduct public workshops explaining the process in detail, in a country where abortion is only legal in cases of rape or incest which have been reported to the police; incurable and severe fetal abnormality; or danger to the woman’s life or health. It’s a country where even legal abortions are increasingly hard to access, and where the ruling conservative party, Law and Justice, backed a 2016 effort to ban abortion outright (the government backtracked after millions of Polish women and men poured into the streets, in what became known as the “Black Protests.”)
They, along with 39-year-old Kinga Jelińska, a Polish activist based in Amsterdam, are the Abortion Dream Team.
The Dream Team’s approach—practical assistance and public provocation—is a bare-knuckled challenge to Poland’s contradictory abortion regime, in which abortion is barely accessible, rarely discussed, yet regularly obtained. Although Karolina, a lawyer, believes their activities are completely legal (“Giving information is not a crime,” she says), she was unhappy to see papers from a prosecutor’s office in the folder of the man who attempted to record their workshop, because his presence could have stifled a free and open discussion, the precise thing the Dream Team hopes to create.
“What they use is a sort of civil disobedience,” said University of Central Florida anthropology professor Joanna Mishtal, author of “The Politics of Morality,” an account of church-state relations and reproductive rights in post-Socialist Poland, who is currently working with an interdisciplinary team researching abortion access in Europe. Through their workshops and support for women seeking abortions, the Dream Team flirts with the Polish criminal code, which punishes causing the death of a conceived child with sentences of up to two years, although Karolina believes that they are firmly on the right side of the law, since the Polish constitution guarantees freedom of information.
The four members of the Dream Team came together in October of 2016, with the goal of providing direct and immediate assistance to women who needed abortions, but were ineligible for a legal one under the law’s extremely narrow criteria. They also wanted to start a public conversation about the reality of abortion in Poland, unburdened by the language of stigma, morality, or politics. Like the 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, nicknamed “the Dream Team,” the Abortion Dream Team also has a roster full of reproductive-rights talent. Justyna, an engineer by training, founded the website Kobiety w Sieci, or Women on the Net, Poland’s first online forum supporting women seeking abortions, contraception, or sex education, back in 2006 (Last year, police raided her office, trying to obtain data on the users in the forum). Natalia is a researcher studying self-managed abortion, a history that stretches probably as far back as pregnancy. Karolina is a lawyer working at an LGBT organization. From Amsterdam, Kinga runs Women Help Women, a group that sends abortion pills to women around the world, including hundreds of Polish women each year. After the Black Protests grabbed the world’s attention, the Open Society Foundations began funding their work.
Prior to starting the Dream Team, Karolina and Natalia worked at Poland’s largest reproductive-rights NGO, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, Karolina as a lawyer, and Natalia as a sex educator. Each was frustrated by the cautious, legalistic approach taken by the Federation’s director, who preferred to focus on the small number of cases of women being denied legal abortions for which they were technically eligible. Karolina, who ran the Federation’s hotline for women with questions about abortion and other reproductive rights issues, saw the massive unmet need for concrete, factual information about how to access abortion in cases where a woman’s reason for needing one fell short of the law’s requirements.
The two of them also knew this from personal experience.
Natalia had first met Justyna in 2011, after finding her number in the kitchen of the Federation’s office. She had come there in person, desperately seeking an abortion. She believes a woman seeking an abortion isn’t thinking about the law. She is thinking about ending her pregnancy.
“When I was searching [for] pills and I called Justyna, the legal situation was not the problem for me,” Natalia recalled. “My problem was, how to take pills, how to stay safe, can I tell someone, can someone be with me, what painkillers should I get, and when can I get back to work? These were my questions -- not, Is this a crime? And we know for many women, this is not the issue. The issue is…I’m in a cage, and I need to get out of it.”
Plus, she added, “Abortion is older than any law.”
Karolina had her own pregnancy scare in 2009, and vividly remembers fruitlessly searching online for help. She recalled that hopeless feeling every time she would answer the Federation’s hotline, and today, when women reach out to the Dream Team.
“When they started calling me in 2010, it’s like, Oh my god—I still remember that feeling, that you think that there is nothing out there,” she said. “Right now it’s a lot better, but you know, 10 years ago, it was totally different.”
Tired of waiting for a liberalization of the law, they wanted to put abortion into women’s own hands, and back into the public debate, sometimes in a manner at odds with the strategies of other Polish feminists. One of their cheekier slogans, cribbed from a sign at a Women’s March following the election of Donald Trump, is “Make Abortion Great Again.” In 2018, Karolina, Natalia, and Justyna appeared on the cover of Poland’s pre-eminent women’s magazine, Wysokich Obcasów, smiling against a hot-pink background in matching t-shirts that read “Aborcja Jest OK”: Abortion is OK.
Some in the reproductive rights movement wonder whether their almost celebratory attitude towards abortion could be counterproductive in the conservative Catholic country.
“They push this taboo barrier, on the one hand,” with the magazine cover, said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer currently working with the Federation. “But on the other hand, some people who could be pro-choice feel, as I’ve heard, offended somehow” by their blunt and cheerful approach to abortion.
One prominent feminist cultural critic, who asked not to be named, criticized their attitude towards abortion as cavalier, yet even she acknowledged that they forced Polish people to say the word “abortion” out loud, itself no small feat.
Arguably, it is the conservative effort to ban abortion altogether that has been the most counterproductive strategy in recent years. Public support for legal abortion rose in the months between March and October of 2016, reversing a trend of declining social acceptance of abortion that had been in place since 2007.
Not so long ago, Poland was a place where abortion was easy to access, and consumer goods like leather jackets were rare, smuggled from Western Europe in what was known as “suitcase trade.” Today, the country, often referred to as the poster child for neoliberal economic reforms, is a capitalist paradise of shopping malls and homegrown entrepreneurs, while activists smuggle abortion pills and emergency contraception into the country.
Under Poland’s state socialist party, abortion was legalized in 1956, available up to 14 weeks for medical and socioeconomic reasons. By 1960, Poland recorded over 150,000 abortions per year, a number that declined to about 130,000 a year with the spread of contraceptive use, according to Mishtal. Shortly after the socialist regime crumbled in 1989, the newly elected Polish Parliament proposed an abortion ban to appease the Church. “The news shocked the nation,” writes Mishtal. “After all, Poland was in a state of economic and political chaos, as even basic goods and services were lacking.”
In 1993, Parliament passed the current law with its three exceptions, promptly spawning a robust “abortion underground.” Doctors who had previously performed abortions in public hospitals now offered safe but illegal abortions in private clinics to those who could afford the 1,000 to 4,000 zlotych price tag, about $260 to $1,050, in a country where GDP per capita was less than $9,000 a year throughout the 1990s. In the 2000s, abortion clinics equipped with Polish-speaking staff sprung up along Poland’s borders with Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, offering the procedure to Polish women with the means to travel. Poland now has an official legal abortion tally of about 1,000 per year in a country of over 38 million people, while hard-to-verify estimates place the number of illegal abortions between 50,000 to 200,000. Poland also has one of the lowest rates of contraception take-up in the European Union, with less than half of partnered women using a modern contraceptive method, due to a lack of sex education, stigma, and Catholic doctors and pharmacists who refuse to prescribe or supply them.
Around the same time that Poland transitioned to democracy, France became the first country to license the mifepristone for use in combination with another drug (now commonly misoprostol) to induce early abortion. In 1993, The New York Times reported on studies showing “hundreds of thousands” of Brazilian women were inducing abortions using the ulcer drug misoprostol. Since then, the process has been refined into the two-step procedure widely used today all over the world (including in the U.S., where they accounted for nearly 31 percent of abortions in 2014). A packet of abortion pills includes mifepristone, which is taken first to block progesterone, a hormone needed to sustain pregnancy, followed 24 to 48 hours later by tablets of misoprostol, which causes violent uterine contractions, cramps, and bleeding, symptoms that resemble a miscarriage. A package of pills costs 75 euros to 95 euros when ordered from Women Help Women or Women on the Web, although both sites offer discounts or free pills to women who cannot afford to pay. Success rates are around 95 percent to 99 percent for pregnancies up to ten weeks, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But as abortion slipped underground and the Church’s influence rose, abortion and other matters of sexuality became increasingly privatized in Poland. Doctors who previously performed free abortions in public hospitals opened private clinics and advertised discreetly in newspapers, often with just a phone number and words such as “safe” or “anesthesia,” according to Mishtal’s book. One researcher estimated doctors earn $95 million a year, tax-free, from illegal abortions, alchemy she called “turning sin into gold.” The 1993 abortion law also prescribed a national sex education curriculum focused on “conscious and responsible parenthood, the value of the family, [and] life in the prenatal phase,” muting any robust public discussion of sexuality and abortion. The Dream Team is hauling abortion back into the public square.
In Gdańsk, the workshop eventually proceeded as planned, two hours of medical abortion #RealTalk, punctuated by occasional outbursts from a baby in a stroller at the back of the room. Natalia role-played a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, asking Justyna questions about how to find and take the pills, then turning to Karolina for legal advice. They took turns cuddling their props, two large circular pillows embroidered with the words “mifepristone” and “misoprostol.” No detail was too small. They explained that the pills are tasteless, an important consideration for pregnant women, who can be hypersensitive to taste and smell. Try ironing to stay active and vertical to ease the pain after taking misoprostol (showering, walking, and pacing up and down staircases also work, they said). Go to the hospital in the case of fainting, severe bleeding, or symptoms of an incomplete miscarriage, such as abdominal pain, fever, or an atypical smell from the vagina. No, a woman cannot go to prison for an abortion, because the law only punishes the people who have helped her terminate her pregnancy (the anti-abortion bill recently passed in Alabama exempts women from criminal liability, but statutes on fetal personhood have been used to prosecute women for years, even for inadvertent harm to the fetus), and yes, it is definitely legal to hold a friend’s hand and care for her while she administers her abortion. Most importantly, Natalia stressed, the Dream Team and their allies were there to help.
“We want to say very clearly that if you ever help a friend, tell her about the possibility of terminating a pregnancy, or even get her the medicines – we are here for you,” she said.
After a Q&A session, they spread out abortion swag on the long table, including ‘zines about abortion, stickers, and colorful textiles Karolina hand-embroiders with slogans such as “Abortion: You Do You” and “I used to think abortion is bad but now I don’t.”
Monika Ryńska, a student finishing her undergraduate degree in psychosexology at a nearby university, came to the workshop after seeing it on the Facebook page SexEd Gdańsk.
She realized after that abortion was a blind spot in her curriculum.
“We don’t talk about abortion much,” she said. “We talk about rape, and the aftermath of rape, and molestation, but not really about abortion.”
“It’s because abortion is political,” added her fellow student Sylwia Podwysocka. “It’s still very controversial.”
The Dream Team gives around eight to ten of these workshops a year in cities and towns around Poland. The rest of the time, in between and around their day jobs, they’re informing women, one at a time, how to find medication and safely administer their own abortions. They estimate they get around five calls or messages a day; women find them through their Facebook page, Instagram, or get their phone numbers through friends.
Some just need a bit of information, others want someone they can trust to guide them through the process, still others want advice on every last detail: What does misoprostol taste like? Can I eat a hamburger? (“I should tell them ‘No! No hamburgers!’” jokes Karolina, a strict vegan.) Which painkillers can I take? Abortion rush hour, as it were, comes on Friday nights (the weekend leaves enough time for the process to conclude), holidays, and peaks on Polish National Day, November 11. Natalia remembers helping five women last November, juggling everyone’s progress as they took their pills and waited for the bleeding to come.
Natalia said many women who call feel the need to justify themselves, explaining, perhaps as much to themselves as to her, why they must have this abortion. But the Dream Team doesn’t so much offer absolution as radical acceptance, and unwavering support.
“It’s not that we have to understand everyone, because it’s just impossible,” said Karolina. “It’s your life. What can I do for you?”