On 14th March 2023, Human Rights Defender and Abortion Activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was convicted and sentenced for providing abortion pills to a woman who sought to exercise her right to bodily autonomy. In Poland, abortion is legal only when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the woman’s life or health or when the pregnancy results from a criminal act. Although there are no penalties for women for the termination of pregnancy, there are criminal sanctions for persons who assist in the termination of the pregnancy, including medical personnel.
In Africa and most countries worldwide, women’s and girls’ bodies are subject to politicization and over-policing. Sexual reproductive health and rights are severely curtailed, and activists often work in environments fearing criminal sanctions and political and social recrimination. Persecution and threats of prosecution have created a harsh environment and made it challenging for human rights defenders to support women and girls needing assistance and care.
International human rights instruments have set out the right to the best attainable standards of health, right to dignity, right to privacy, bodily autonomy and integrity and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as fundamental inherent and inalienable human rights. The denial of these rights through overt and covert actions of criminalization and over-regulation leads to discrimination and outright human rights violations.
Access to legal and safe abortion reduces maternal mortality and morbidity and enhances the quality of life for many women and girls. Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides that safe and non-invasive method of medical abortions can be self-managed using pills up to the twelfth week of pregnancy.
Thus, the prosecution and conviction of Human Rights Defender Justyna Wydrzyńska clearly illustrate the challenges facing all persons who support women and girls seeking their right to bodily autonomy. This conviction serves to intimidate and increase angst amongst human rights defenders all over the world.
We call on leaders and legislators in all states to decriminalize abortion and cease the persecution and prosecution of persons who assist and work towards creation legal structures that facilitate and ensure safe access to sexual and reproductive health care.