I hadn’t broken Poland’s abortion laws – so why was I put through hell? | Global development

In May, I made the decision to take abortion pills to end a pregnancy. I wasn’t scared. I’ve been involved in LGBTQ+ and pro-choice activism in Poland for years, I know my rights and knew I wasn’t breaking the law. Though Poland’s abortion law is strict, terminating your own pregnancy is not illegal. So, like thousands of Polish women every year, I ordered the medication online from Women Help Women, a secure source abroad.

One night, two weeks after I’d taken the pills, I was at home when suddenly there was a loud banging on my front door and shouts of “police!”.

I had just come off the phone with my psychologist. It had been a stressful time and that night I’d had a panic attack. I’ve had these many times before and I called my psychologist for help. She asked me about any new medication I’d been taking so I told her about the abortion pills.

She was calm and told me that she was calling a paramedic. Instead she called the police. Later, the recording of her conversation with the police was leaked to the press, where she can be heard telling them that I’d had an abortion and was suicidal, though I specifically told her I wasn’t.

I have a lot to say about my psychologist, none of it fit for print, but suffice to say I trusted her completely and she violated that trust and our confidentiality.

When I let the police in, they did not treat me like someone whose wellbeing they were concerned for. They stomped all over my flat in their boots, shouting and pushing me around. They said they were investigating “a crime” without specifying what it was.

They confiscated my laptop and told me to leave with them. There was an ambulance waiting. I was in shock and felt I had no choice but to go with them.

They took me to the emergency department at the hospital. While I sat in a corner crying, the doctors there told the police that they could look after me and that they could leave.

This wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They took me to another hospital with a gynaecological department, where more police were waiting for me. All this time they never said a word about what I was supposed to have done wrong.

Protesters carry posters with images of Joanna during a march in Kraków in July. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

The doctors at the second hospital seemed intimidated by the police. They were told to take my blood and give me a vaginal exam. My consent didn’t seem to matter. The doctor who was examining me let me know he didn’t want to get involved. “I do not care about any of this,” he told me.

After the examination, the police got more aggressive. Female officers took me to a gynaecologist’s office and the doctor left me. They told me to strip naked but I refused to take off my knickers. They made me squat and cough in front of them. Why would they do this but to frighten and humiliate me?

They threatened me with a cavity search. With my back to the wall, crying and naked except for my knickers, I felt like a hunted animal. I screamed at them, “What do you even want from me?”

I was left exhausted but angry. A few weeks later I decided to go public with what happened to me. I figured I’d rather stand and take a hit from the government than cower. I gave interviews to newspapers and television channels about how the police had treated me. This unleashed hell.

“Abortion” is like a magic word in Poland, it provokes huge reactions. In the weeks afterwards the entire country felt that they had permission to debate my uterus and my sanity.

At first, there were articles that accused me of exaggerating or lying. The police said that they had come to my flat because I was suicidal. Then politicians, journalists and social media started to say I was mentally unstable. It felt unreal to watch myself being discussed on TV like that.

Nude pictures I had published as part of my work as a performance artist were circulated on the internet to say I was a deviant and a satanist.

The story kept escalating, fuelled by conspiracy theories. People were saying I was a man, the whole story was fake or that I didn’t even exist. For a while I had to move out of my house for my safety.

State media became especially obsessed. I guess someone felt that I was a threat. They dedicated a whole segment on evening television to me and my lawyer, who they claimed was lying. Because my surname was never made public – although one politician later leaked it – they churned out dozens of headlines calling me “Pani Joanna [Madam Joanna] from Kraków”, implying that I am unreliable and unstable. I had become a character on to whom everyone was projecting their own ideas.

I decided to claim her back. In my art I take on different personae; male and female. I treat gender roles like acting roles and I treat Pani Joanna the same way.

The title of my latest photography series is “Pani Joanna from Kraków … [fill in the blank]”. I invited people to complete the title themselves. For some, Pani Joanna is a very brave woman – a hero. For others she is mentally unhinged. For others still she is evil.

Joanna in central KrakówJoanna in central Kraków. She says she was subject to harassment and intimidation by the authorities. Photograph: Ewa Płonka/The Guardian

Pani Joanna is not me, but six months after that knock on the door I am proud of how she has shaken up the discourse. She forced everyone – including conservative politicians – to acknowledge that terminating your own pregnancy is not illegal.

In my country, many women didn’t know they could not be criminalised for their abortions. Abortion laws kill women. Politicians talked about changing our laws in the run-up to the election. It became a bargaining chip. Now that they’re about to form a government, they have become silent on this issue.

I paid a steep price for speaking out, but I gained a platform, from which I could loudly refuse to consent to the intimidation tactics of the authorities. If my story reached only one woman who didn’t know her rights, then it was all worth it. I refuse to be silenced.

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