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Ukraine: Poland’s near-total ban on abortion has left Ukrainian refugees struggling to access healthcare

Aid organisations are warning of the risks Ukrainian women and girls are currently facing as they flee the Russian invasion.

Updated 10 May: Ukrainian refugees who have sought refuge in Poland are struggling to access abortion care due to the country’s restrictive laws, activists have warned.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, approximately 5.7 million Ukrainians – most of whom are women and children – have fled the country, according to the UNHCR. Around 3 million of these refugees have entered Poland.

However, while the country has provided safety to millions of refugees, its near-total ban on abortion – which came into place at the end of January last year – has left many women, including victims of rape, struggling to access the healthcare they require.  

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While abortion is legal in Poland in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the health of the mother, accessing an abortion in these cases is far from simple; in cases of rape, for example, a public prosecutor is required to certify that the pregnancy was the result of a crime, after which the victim is allowed to access healthcare.

Not only do these steps rarely happen, according to a 2021 Council of Europe report, but there is doubt over how prosecutors will certify the accounts of Ukrainian refugees who say they were raped by Russian soldiers in Ukraine – many of whom were unaware of Poland’s restrictive abortion laws before they crossed the border.

As it stands, groups such as the Polish reproductive rights organisation the Federation For Women And Family Planning (Federa) and Abortion Without Borders are providing support to women who want to have an abortion for any reason (many of which are against the law in Poland) – but many refugees are still falling through the cracks.   

“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,” Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network, part of Abortion Without Borders, told i.

“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.”

However, Clarke explained, there’s no guarantee that these pills will reach the women who need them or that those who help them won’t get charged – especially because, in many cases, the reasons why these women want to have an abortion are illegal under Polish law.  

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“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,” she said.

“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.” 

As reported 8 March: As the number of Ukranian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion continues to rise, aid organisations are warning of the crucial need to protect women and girls caught up in the crisis.

With Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60 being told to stay behind and fight, the majority of the refugees fleeing the country are women and children.

Conflict, crisis and displacement can put women and girls at increased risk of sexual and physical violence and abuse – and experts are concerned that many of the refugees will be put at risk if not given the correct support.

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Speaking exclusively to Stylist, Katie Morrison, who is part of Plan International’s response team in Romania, outlined the situation the women and children arriving in the country are currently facing.  

“We’re meeting women who have fled Ukraine and brought their families to safety, often enduring long, cold journeys and travelling without their partners, who have stayed behind to fight,” Morrison explains. 

“Young girls start to cry when they talk about leaving home, suddenly being on ‘holiday’ from school and, most devastatingly, being separated from their dads.”

Morrison continues: “When they arrive, they are being welcomed and given food, water and shelter. But that’s just the most immediate needs – girls will need access to period products, pregnant women and young mothers need urgent access to healthcare, and without secure systems in place, women who are being offered rooms to stay in may be at risk of violence and exploitation.

“When a crisis hits, women and girls will always have specific needs. We must work with them, both immediately and in the long term, to ensure those needs are met.” 

The Disasters Emergency Committee – of which Plan International is a member – is also warning about the dangers faced by women and girls still in Ukraine, especially when it comes to the lack of healthcare for the estimated 80,000 women who are due to give birth over the next three months.

Ukrainian refugees crossing the border in Medyka, Poland
Ukrainian refugees crossing the border in Medyka, Poland.

There have already been numerous stories about women having to give birth in underground stations while sheltering from bombing – and as hospitals and other healthcare facilities are damaged or destroyed, maternal healthcare will become even harder to access.

“We know the majority of maternal deaths in the world occur in humanitarian crises,” explains Alexandra Parnebjork, Plan International’s gender in emergencies advisor. 

“In these situations, women and girls know what they want and need. We must work with them to ensure they have access to proper health care and protection from sexual and gender-based violence.” 

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While the situation in Ukraine is developing rapidly, the Disasters Emergency Committee is raising crucial funds to support those affected by the crisis. 

So far, the organisation’s humanitarian appeal has raised over £100m – funds which will be used to provide medical support, counselling, providing safe spaces for women and children and giving out dignity kits containing items such as underwear, period products and soap.

To find out more and donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal, you can check out their website

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