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Millions of Ukrainians are arriving to a battle over abortion rights in Poland

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: 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.]

ARI SHAPIRO (HOST): Imagine stepping across a border and discovering that reproductive rights you once took for granted are now a crime. For millions of Ukrainians, that discovery happened when they fled the war in their home country and set foot here in Poland. Ukraine has very liberal abortion laws. In Poland, it's almost entirely illegal. But while Poland's anti-abortion effort has the weight of the government behind it, there is another movement, one that's secretive, underground and punishable with prison time. You see it right here on the border if you know where to look.

LUCJA (INTERPRETER): (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: At the Medyka border crossing, there are bright blue port-a-potties for Ukrainian refugees who've just arrived in Poland, and someone has taped flyers inside the doors of these toilets. They offer information in Ukrainian and Russian. My colleague is reading aloud.

LUCJA: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: It says, you are not alone. The card has 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. Members of these groups take real risks to help refugees and others access reproductive services that they would have no trouble getting in Ukraine.

Hi. I'm Ari.

OKSANA LITVINENKO (ACTIVIST): Oksana.

SHAPIRO: So nice to meet you.

Oksana Litvinenko asked to meet us at our hotel in Warsaw, not at her home or office, because anti-abortion protesters have targeted her personally, and so she takes precautions. My colleague interprets as she speaks.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) Of course. Even they was coming to my daughter's school. She was 12 back then. And we have different last names with my daughter, and that keep her safe.

SHAPIRO: Litvinenko is Ukrainian and has lived in Poland for 18 years. In a country that has targeted LGBTQ people, she wears a watch with a rainbow wristband. Her hair is cut into a short buzz. She has a day job which gives her access to the people she helps through her volunteer work.

LITVINENKO: Definitely.

SHAPIRO: She is a Ukrainian-Polish interpreter. And so when refugees need to end a pregnancy, they confide in her. But she says they rarely ask outright. They use euphemisms.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) They're trying to describe it in other way. They're asking for pills to make period come faster.

SHAPIRO: People in other countries can legally send abortion pills to Poland, but here, Litvinenko speaks very carefully.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) I didn't give it to their hands.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that carefully because giving someone an abortion pill is a crime in Poland?

LITVINENKO: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) Three years of prison.

SHAPIRO: Three years of prison. And yet you still give these women the help they ask for.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) I am feminist, and Polish feminists are different than feminists from different countries because they have a real goal.

SHAPIRO: At this, Litvinenko sits up straight and smiles for the first time in our conversation, a wry grin. She stops twisting the thumb ring that she's been turning while we talk.

LITVINENKO: (Through interpreter) Now I feel here most needed because I am not only language translator but also Polish reality translator.

SHAPIRO: The threat of prosecution for helping someone end a pregnancy is real. Justyna Wydrzynska is a member of a Polish group called Abortion Dream Team. She is the first activist to face criminal charges under this law. She was charged two months ago, accused of helping a woman who was in an abusive relationship end a pregnancy.

JUSTYNA WYDRZYNSKA (ACTIVIST, ABORTION DREAM TEAM): She was begging us, please help me somehow.

SHAPIRO: My colleague, NPR correspondent Joanna Kakissis, spoke with the activist.

WYDRZYNSKA: Because she couldn't travel abroad. He told her that if she travelled with their 2-years-old kid, then he would report a kidnapping to the police. And after that, when he just blackmailed her, she decided just to ask, if you could please send me pills, but please do it in total secret. But he somehow got the information because he called the police and said she received kind of help from somebody. She got pills from somebody.

SHAPIRO: Wydrzynska doesn't know whether prosecutors will be lenient and give her a suspended sentence or make an example out of her and send her to prison for years. There is another layer to this story, and we'll warn you that this might be difficult to hear. Russian soldiers have used rape as a weapon of war, and that can lead to pregnancy.

KRYSTYNA KACPURA (PRESIDENT, FEDERA): They want to keep top secret of this. Even they don't want to share this with their families.

SHAPIRO: Krystyna Kacpura is head of the women's rights group Federa. That's one of the organizations behind those flyers in the port-a-potties at the border. Federa has existed since 1991. Back then, abortion was widely available in Poland. Lately, she's been doing a lot of work with Ukrainian refugees, some of whom have been raped.

KACPURA: They said me that war will end one day, and we have to continue our normal lives. How can I tell about this to my partner or husband? He has been fighting in Ukraine. We want to have a normal life. I don't want to be regarded as a victim of sexual violence, victims of rape. Even if I sometimes ask them just to be victims to be - to certificate this case, no, no.

SHAPIRO: Technically, Polish law allows 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.

KACPURA: You know, investigation, announcement to the police and prosecutor - 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 prosecutor?

SHAPIRO: Kacpura's organization, Federa, has set up a hotline. It's staffed by a Ukrainian gynecologist, a doctor who is herself a refugee from Kyiv. Sometimes the advice the doctor gives is, call your Auntie Basia. The phrase in Polish is Ciocia Basia.

ZUZANNA DZIUBAN (VOLUNTEER, CIOCIA BASIA): Ciocia Basia - it's Auntie Barbara, Auntie Basia. It's diminutive from quite 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.

SHAPIRO: Zuzanna Dziuban is one of many women who identify as Ciocia Basia. The B in Basia stands for Berlin. Dziuban is Polish, but she's living in Germany, where abortion is widely available.

DZIUBAN: In Austria, where we have Auntie Vienya, with the name sounding a little bit like Vienna, and Auntie Chesha in Czech Republic.

SHAPIRO: Those are names that are common in their respective countries. This is an underground network stretching across Europe. From Germany, Dziuban helps people in Poland who need abortions. Most often, they acquire pills from an organization called Women Help Women. Other times, her collective helps them travel west. They provide train tickets, housing, counseling, whatever people need.

DZIUBAN: I have this limited privilege of living in a country where access to abortion is better than it is in Poland. So I simply feel that they have the obligation to share this privilege.

SHAPIRO: Since the war began in late February, the requests to her network have doubled. By their count, the aunties have helped more than 400 Ukrainians end their pregnancies. I asked Dziuban to share the story of one of them, and she told me about a woman whose husband was killed by the Russians.

DZIUBAN: She's in Poland for four weeks and just learned about the death of her husband, and she simply cannot have a kid this - that continued this pregnancy. And this was, like, a really highly emotional moment for me, like, the war becoming very real through this one story. And I shed some tears but also supported her in ordering pills, told her where to do it. And, yeah, I cried a bit and then thought, OK, Zuza. This is the new reality. Get used to it.

SHAPIRO: Are you able to go home to Poland? Do you worry that you will be prosecuted if you do?

DZIUBAN: We have this conviction, and we try to convince ourselves that - the fact that we are doing our activism in Germany, where Polish law does not apply, we are relatively safe. But we can never know how Polish prosecutors will interpret those situations, actually, since we are uncertain how this can develop if they start going after activists, for instance, working abroad.

SHAPIRO: Zuzanna Dziuban told me the name of her group, Auntie Basia, comes from a Kenyan collective called Auntie Jane. That group took its name from the Jane Collective, the underground organization that helped people access abortion in the United States before it was legal. The Jane Collective disbanded after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 6, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
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.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.