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This secretive network helps Ukrainian refugees find abortions in Europe

In Ukraine, abortion laws are very liberal. But Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war found much more restrictive laws in neighboring Poland.
Nicole Xu for NPR
In Ukraine, abortion laws are very liberal. But Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war found much more restrictive laws in neighboring Poland.

Zuzanna Dziuban has had a lot of difficult conversations with Ukrainian refugees lately. But there is one with a pregnant woman that sticks in her memory.

"She's in Poland for four weeks, and just learned about the death of her husband," says Dziuban, a pro-choice abortion activist based in Berlin.

He was killed in the war she had just escaped. Traumatized by it all, the woman couldn't carry the baby to term.

"I shed some tears, but also supported her in ordering pills and told her where to do it," Dziuban says. "I cried a bit and then thought, 'OK, this is the new reality. Get used to it.'"

Many Ukrainian women who were driven out of their homes by the war have found themselves in neighboring Poland, where abortion is severely limited. Even helping someone access an abortion can result in a lengthy jail sentence.

Still, activists in and around Poland are working in secretive networks to help Ukrainians get abortions.

Dziuban works with one of those networks, a collective called "Ciocia Basia" – a name meant to avoid suspicion from Polish authorities.

"It's diminutive from quite a traditional Polish name, a name that you can put in your phone and it doesn't look suspicious because everyone in Poland has some Auntie Basia," Dziuban says.

Those phone calls have increased dramatically since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, keeping Dziuban and her fellow activists around Europe busy. Their work can even be found at the border between Poland and Ukraine, the first entry point for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Rape as a weapon of war

A sign in a portable bathroom at the Medyka border crossing in Poland with phone numbers for a gynecology hotline. There are logos for Polish reproductive rights groups that connect with a network of women's organizations across Europe.
/ Adam Lach for NPR
/
Adam Lach for NPR
A sign in a portable bathroom at the Medyka border crossing in Poland with phone numbers for a gynecology hotline. There are logos for Polish reproductive rights groups that connect with a network of women's organizations across Europe.

"You are not alone," read the flyers inside portable toilets at the Medyka border crossing. The phone number of a gynecology hotline staffed by a Ukrainian doctor is also written in big bold writing.

The flyers were put there by Federa, a women's rights group that has existed since 1991, when abortion was widely available in Poland.

Their work has become even more significant since October 2020, when Poland's Constitutional Tribunal implemented a near-total ban on abortion, even in cases of severe fetal abnormality. Lately, Federa has been supporting Ukrainian refugees, including some who have been raped by Russian soldiers while fleeing the war.

"They want to keep it top secret," says Krystyna Kacpura, the president of Federa. "They don't want to share it with their families. They said to me, 'The war will end one day and we have to continue our normal lives.'"

The women who confide in her can't bring themselves to tell their husbands who are fighting in Ukraine. They tell Kacpura they don't want to be regarded as a victim of rape, and they won't allow her to document their experience as rape.

Polish law does allow abortion in cases of rape, but, according to Poland's health ministry, the country has never had more than three such cases in a year. Kacpura says the government makes ending a pregnancy practically impossible, even for rape victims.

There are invasive investigations, interviews with the police and prosecutors, and experiences that could retraumatize rape victims, according to Kacpura.

"Could you imagine a poor Ukrainian woman or girl who will go and answer many questions and will wait for two weeks for the decision of a prosecutor?"

The Polish reality translator

For Ukrainian women who are used to safe and legal abortions at home, figuring out Poland's strict laws while trying to begin a new life is daunting. That's where Oxsana Lytvynenko comes in.

"I'm not only a Ukrainian language translator, but also a Polish reality translator," says Lytvynenko, a Ukrainian who has lived in Poland for 18 years. Officially, she works as a translator for newly arrived Ukrainians. Unofficially, she's a pro-choice activist helping those refugees navigate the new legal landscape in Poland.

She says Ukrainian women rarely ask about abortions outright due to the strict laws, and instead use euphemisms.

"They try to describe it in another way," Lytvynenko says. "Asking for pills to make their period come faster."

Helping at all is a big risk.

Justyna Wydrzynska, another pro-choice activist and a member of a Polish grassroots initiative called the "Abortion Dream Team," is currently awaiting trial in Warsaw. She faces three years in prison after being accused of helping a woman in an abusive relationship end a pregnancy.

"She was begging us, 'Please help me somehow,'" Wydrzynska says. The woman's partner told her that if she left the country to get an abortion and took their two-year-old child with her, he would report a kidnapping to the police.

"And after that, when he just blackmailed her, she decided to just ask if you could please send me pills. But please do it in total secret," Wydrznska recalls. "But [her husband] somehow got the information, because he called the police and said she received some kind of help from somebody. She got pills from somebody."

Wydrzynska is the first activist in Europe to face criminal charges since Poland enacted its strict laws. She doesn't know if prosecutors will be lenient and give her a suspended sentence, or make an example out of her and send her to prison.

And as the trial nears, even activists working outside of Poland are worried about being caught up in the Polish legal system.

"We can never know how Polish prosecutors will interpret situations," says Zuzanna Dziuban, the activist based in Berlin who works with Ciocia Basia. "We are uncertain how it can develop, if they start to go after activists, for instance, working abroad."

But, for now, those secretive networks inside and outside of Poland will continue to help as the war stretches on into its fourth month and more and more Ukrainian women flee into Poland.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 1, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
In the broadcast version of this report, we incorrectly said that most often, Zuzanna Dziuban sends pills to people in Poland who need abortions. In fact, most often they acquire pills from an organization called Women Help Women; Dziuban doesn't send pills herself. The audio has been updated.