“I Felt That I Had Saved My Own Life”: A Polish Woman’s Harrowing Story of Illegal Abortion

“I Felt That I Had Saved My Own Life”: A Polish Woman’s Harrowing Story of Illegal Abortion

“I Felt That I Had Saved My Own Life”: A Polish Woman’s Harrowing Story of Illegal Abortion

Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska is the first woman in Europe to be convicted of “intent to aid” an abortion. For the first time, the woman she helped, Ania, tells the story of her desperate quest to end her pregnancy.


On March 14, 2023, the Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was convicted of “intent to aid” an abortion. Wydrzyńska is a prominent abortion rights activist in Poland, and in February 2020, she was contacted by Ania (a pseudonym), a woman who was desperate for help accessing medication abortion. Ania’s situation was tragic and complicated, and Wydrzyńska was moved by her pleas. She had a pack of abortion pills in her home and sent it to Ania via a courier service, but before Ania could take them, her partner discovered the pills and reported it to the police.

Wydrzyńska was charged in late 2021 and her trial dragged on for a year. With the guilty verdict, she became the first activist in Europe convicted for this type of crime. Her case has attracted international attention, in part because it reflected a new frontier in abortion prosecutions—targeting activists. During the trial, vague details about Ania, and what inspired Wydrzyńska to mail her the pills, filtered out, but Ania has never gone on the record to share what led her to ask for help.

In this exclusive US interview with The Nation, Ania tells her story publicly, in her own words, for the first time. It’s a story of determination, of fear, of solidarity, of loneliness, and of gratitude. It’s also a story of the visceral harm that abortion bans inflict on women, and the lengths people will go to end pregnancies they cannot carry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Ania

as told to Rebecca Grant

A little more than three years ago, my whole life and opinions and worldviews changed completely. I would never have suspected that I would have an unwanted pregnancy and would have taken the decision to terminate it. This way of thinking lasted until the day of [my own experience].

I became pregnant in December 2019. It was both a planned and wanted pregnancy, as I had this dream to give a sibling to my 3-year-old child. On the first day of January 2020, my pregnancy symptoms became so severe that I was forced to lie down. I was vomiting more and more, and the pain in my stomach was getting worse every day. On January 10, 2020, I went to a gynecologist to confirm the pregnancy, and this is a day I will remember until the end of my life.

On the monitor of the ultrasound machine, I saw two embryos during the examination, and I felt a wave of weakness. I knew exactly what was in front of me, because in my previous pregnancy, a singular pregnancy, I was hospitalized three times with the diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum—an uncontrollable severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy—and spent about a month in the hospital. This time, because it was a twin pregnancy, I was quite sure that the symptoms would be even more severe to the point where I was fearing for my life. In the doctor’s office, I said those very words, that I would die in this pregnancy, but the doctor laughed and said I would not die, and that she, the doctor, also had nausea during the pregnancy.

After leaving this doctor’s office, I became hysterical. I had never cried like that before, and all my clothes were wet from my tears. I realized how difficult of a personal situation I was in, which I am unable and scared to talk about, and I was sure that I would not be able to cope with three small children. For the next eight weeks of my life, I was vomiting dozens of times a day, and what came out was bile. I was so incredibly exhausted. In that time, every second of time felt like an eternity to me. After about a week, I stopped eating and drinking completely because I was throwing up everything. I lost 10 kilograms. I was starved and thin, and I was dreaming that the situation would end.

At the end of January, I was hospitalized. The cure consisted of them giving me about eight IV drips a day. In that time, my health deteriorated and I was lying in bed, screaming in pain. I was subjected to both psychological and psychiatric consultations, and I told them that I was going to die during this pregnancy. I was simply terrified. I knew if I was going to suffer like this for the next seven months, until the end of the pregnancy, I would be a wreck of a person. I would get depression from which I would not recover for years, and maybe the rest of my life. And it was there in that very hospital that I made the decision to terminate this pregnancy, regardless of the consequences. I also knew that I couldn’t say it out loud and confess that to the medical staff. I was afraid that they would send me to a psychiatric ward by force, and then I really would have no choice but to give birth.

For the rest of my life, I will never forget the condescending gaze of the personnel of the hospital. Their behavior was evidence that they would only terminate this pregnancy if there was a direct threat to my life. Additionally, my partner had achieved an authorization to view all my medical records and to consult others about my health, and he was very keen on the idea that I should remain pregnant. It seemed like a game of life and death. I knew that I had to leave the hospital in order to save myself.

I decided to stop reporting to medical staff at the hospital any conditions or issues or problems. I had a hospital card on which I was supposed to record how much fluid I drink and how much urine I passed, and I routinely entered an untruth. When they weighed me on a scale, next to the midwife, I chose to have a very loose sweatshirt, and in my underwear and in trousers, two one-and-a-half liter bottles were hidden. The scale showed more than 50 kgs, and I was released to home.

After leaving the hospital, I went to a nearby pharmacy and bought a Foley catheter. I thought I could induce a miscarriage this way, but first, I decided to try a safer way. I was looking for information on the Internet and found a phone number for an organization called Abortion Without Borders. One evening, I managed to sneak out of my apartment building, and I was kneeling in a sandbox and hiding in the bushes, to call the hotline. The telephone was answered by a woman and she asked me which week of pregnancy I was. I said about nine weeks and I would like to go for an abortion procedure in Germany. She told me to contact Ciocia Basia (a German activist group that helps people travel to Berlin for abortions) and I wrote them an e-mail. I made an appointment because I was hoping that over the course of time, my state would improve and I’d be able to go to Germany for the procedure alone by train. But after a short time, I knew I would simply not be able to go to the clinic abroad. I wrote an e-mail again to Ciocia Basia, asking if they could help arrange for pills to be sent.

In the meantime, I was also in contact with another organization called Women on Net (a Polish forum for sharing information about abortion, which Wydrzyńska founded in 2006, and a coalition member of Abortion Without Borders) to get information about abortion pills, which I wanted to use in secrecy. When I called, a woman answered the phone, and asked me how long I was pregnant, and I told her I was around 12 weeks. She said that she did not recommend abortion with pills after 12 weeks of pregnancy because it could have lots of pain, and that in my situation, it was best to go abroad for a clinical procedure. I got very nervous and upset and I started to cry. I screamed that I was sure and determined to terminate the pregnancy, and I would do it whether she gives me information or not, with pills or without, in a safe or unsafe manner. I also said that I was actually not afraid of any pain and I do not fear any consequences for myself, and that I would rather die than continue this pregnancy.

Then the woman on the phone changed her approach. She said medication abortion is effective and safe, and will proceed similarly to a spontaneous miscarriage. Right after that, Ciocia Basia contacted me back, asking for an address and telling me the pills would be sent by courier mail. [Ciocia Basia had reached out to other members of the Abortion Without Borders network, which included Wydrzyńska, to see if anyone was able to mail the pills, and Wydrzyńska said she could.] I asked for the pills to be sent to a locker for parcels, a service outside of the house, because I wanted to make sure that I could be the only person who could pick up the package.

On February 25, around 8 pm, I picked up the package and put the pills in my bag. I planned to terminate the pregnancy in the coming weekend. But two days later, on February 27, my partner (now ex-partner) returned from a visit to the doctor. He entered the apartment and was standing at the door and told me to give him back the pills I had in my purse. I refused. He pulled out his phone and he reported me for a suspected crime. When the officers arrived at my apartment, by force, they took away my purse. They took away my phone. I was also taken to a police station for questioning. At the police station, they kept me in a space for suspects, and I felt like a criminal. After the police officers took the tablets from me, the possibilities of terminating the pregnancy safely ended.

When I got home, I went to the toilet, and at first, with my own hand, I was trying to dilate the cervix. I have heard before that midwives sometimes use this action to speed up the labor, and I just wanted to induce miscarriage in that way. I started to bleed. Then what I did, or I thought I was doing, was to put the Foley catheter inside the cervix. Thick blood came out, and I awaited contractions, but they never came.

I wore this catheter for days, for many days. When it fell out, I placed it back into the cervix again and again. I did it alone and in silence. I felt hunted like an animal and I was paralyzed with fear. All the hygiene pads and other products, I would throw away in garbage bins in the neighborhood so I would not leave any traces. In that particular time, I found out how untrue the saying is—that human dignity is inherent and cannot be taken away.

After some time, the type of discharge that came out of me started to change. Next to the blood, there was something else. I kept waiting for the contractions but they never came. There was only blood and pus. On the day of March 16, around 7 am, I vomited blood. And then I felt a little bit better, as if the pregnancy symptoms were going away. I went for a walk with the [toddler], pushed the stroller, and continued to wait for the contractions but they were still not coming.

On the day of March 17, I felt knocked off my feet. I was cold, I was shivering, and my whole body was in pain. And once again, I had to go and lie in bed. I had a suspicion of what was wrong, what was going on with me, but I also promised to myself I would not report to the hospital until I was absolutely sure that this pregnancy will not be saved. On the day of March 19, around 19:30, the first pregnancy sac broke and I was flooded with amniotic fluid. I was waiting. About three hours later, the second sac ruptured. I rushed to the hospital as I felt like this was the last moment to save my life.

The doctor in the emergency room asked me to calm down, and he actually reassured me that everything would be fine. He changed his mind when I entered into a gynecological chair and what came out of me was blood, pus, and amniotic fluid. It was a young doctor, he also became pale in his face, and he talked on the phone with a female supervisor. It was all in a hurry that I started to fill in the medical documentation and consent for various treatments. They took blood for testing. After a short while, the results came in, and they gave me two IV antibiotics.

In the morning, I was invited to an examination room, and there were three doctors waiting there for me. A doctor told me that this pregnancy was life-threatening and has to be terminated. They asked if I agreed, but I didn’t really answer anything because I was paralyzed by fear that they would figure out that I wanted to terminate the pregnancy and they would call the police. Then she asked me to sit on the gynecological chair. During the exam, she screamed that I was miscarrying right now. They asked me to push. Everyone was just shocked at my condition.

After the procedure, a midwife woke me up. She told me not to get up on my own, that she would come to me, and we would get up together. When I got up, so much blood came out of me that the whole floor was wet and was red. After all that, I slept for three days. After three days, I woke up and the sun was shining. And in this absolutely awful Warsaw hospital, I felt that I had saved my own life.

I often think about this case. Lately, actually, every day. I do not have any regrets. If anybody could turn back the time, and if again I would be in the same situation as I was in the beginning of the year 2020, I would have done exactly the same. If it had been me in the situation that Justyna found herself in in February 2020, if it had been me who found out that there was a woman in an unwanted pregnancy who was simply begging for abortion pills, I would have given the tablets to this woman, regardless of and no matter what criminal liability is attached to it, because I know that an unwanted pregnancy is torture. A person is willing to take all the consequences for their health and for their life to stop the torture. And I am the best example of that.

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