Pregnant Ukrainian refugees struggle to access abortion after escaping war for Poland

Pregnant Ukrainian refugees including victims of rape who fled to Poland are struggling to access abortions.

Abortion providers and civil society groups have warned that women who have escaped from Ukraine are being denied terminations under Poland’s near-total ban on the procedure.

New restrictions were brought in last year banning abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

However, providers pointed out that for rape victims to get an abortion a criminal investigation would need to be opened. For a woman assaulted in Ukraine, this is near-impossible in the present situation.

Mara Clarke, founder of Abortion Support Network, part of the Abortion Without Borders network, Poland’s largest abortion provider, told i: “The situation for people pregnant by rape shows that ‘exception clauses’ to abortion laws do not work; while abortion for rape is technically allowed in Poland, it is almost never performed. The process of obtaining one is incredibly traumatic and includes obtaining a certificate from a prosecutor to prove rape occurred.”

Ukrainian members of the ‘Unlimited democracy’ association protest in central Vienna against alleged rapes of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers during the invasion (Photo: Alex Halada/AFP)

Evidence of rape has been uncovered in towns including Bucha and Kharkiv, and Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman has said some women and girls may have been “systematically raped”.

Lyudmyla Denisova said this week that 25 women and girls – some aged as young as 14 – were repeatedly raped in the basement of a house occupied by Kremlin forces.

“Nine of them are pregnant,” she said. “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”

However, any rape victim seeking sanctuary in Poland would struggle to access abortion despite it technically being legal.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Centre for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights NGO, which works with groups helping women to access abortions, told i: “According to Polish legislation, a criminal investigation has to be opened but it is not possible in this situation.

“We know about one such case in territory of Poland, who was assisted by volunteers; they solved this problem, they transferred the people to another country.”

But she pointed out that because of the shame and trauma attached to rape, many women would not want to talk about it, and the true number of victims now trying to access abortion was unknown.

“This is a hidden crime and we have no idea how much women and girls need such kind of assistance, she said.

Ukrainian investigators exhume bodies from a mass grave in the grounds of the St Andrew church in Bucha, where the Russians’ withdrawal revealed evidence of rape and execution of civilians (Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP)

For women who are seeking a termination for other reasons, however, accessing abortion remains against the law, and many are having to rely on groups sending them abortion pills.

“There is a bit of shock expressed that they’re escaping Ukraine where abortion is legal and winding up in Poland where abortion is illegal,” said Ms Clarke.

“We have in fact collectively heard from more than 200 people from Ukraine seeking help to get abortions. We also expect these numbers to skyrocket.”

“We already have established pathways for people to access abortions so either we help people access abortions with pills, which is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is the most safe abortion up to 12 weeks, and we’ve put the instructions on how to take the pills in Russian and Ukrainian.”

Women in Krakow, Poland, take part in a silent protest against the mass killing of Ukrainian civilians by the Russian army (Photo Omar Marques/Getty Images)

However, there is no guarantee that these pills will safely reach the women who need them.

Ms Clarke said: “In terms of access to abortion, we’ve already heard from one person who was staying in a facility [refugee centre] and the post was searched, so you can’t get that person pills through the post, you have to physically hand them the pills. Here’s the really, really scary thing. Refugees don’t have their own addresses.

There is also huge risk for anyone who helps Ukrainian women get an abortion. This month Justyna Wydrzyńska, co-founder of the abortion rights advocacy group Abortion Dream Team, was charged with helping a domestic violence victim access an abortion during the coronavirus pandemic.

She sent the woman a packet of abortion pills containing Ms Wydrzyńska’s contact details. However, she said the woman’s husband had called the police, and Ms Wydrzyńska now faces up to three years in prison.

Pro-Ukrainian activists stage a ‘die-in’ in front of the German Bundestag on April 6 after Ukraine’s president accused Moscow of atrocities (Photo: John MacDougall/AFP)

“Our sister Justyna Wydrzyńska is one of the people who takes calls from people from Ukraine – and Poland and elsewhere – and helps them get abortions. For this show of solidarity and compassion she has been criminally charged.

“This threat to her is a threat to all who are helping people in Poland access abortions and to all in Poland who need abortions.

“In Poland you are not charged if you do your own abortion but if somebody helps you that can be criminally charged. So anybody in Poland who wants to help somebody from Ukraine get an abortion is criminally liable under Polish law,” according to Ms Clarke.

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“Let’s say you live in Warsaw and you have agreed to host some Ukrainian refugees and one of them is pregnant and you decide that they can use your address, and your computer, maybe even your credit card to order abortion pills from the internet – you have just committed a crime.”

She said her organisation had managed to help the majority of people who had contacted them with pills, but added: “We have also helped at least two Ukrainian people get abortions in the Netherlands and we have helped two non-Ukrainians access abortions in Berlin.”

Ms Matviichuk said her organisation was working with other groups to spread information and awareness of help for women who need assistance getting an abortion, where they can anonymously apply for medical assistance, or for help being transferred to other countries.