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Polish Government Develops Test That Can Detect If Someone Took Abortion Pills

“Polish authorities are using their powers to terrorize people instead of to protect basic rights,” said one researcher.

A woman holds a banner while demonstrating outside a police station during "Solidarity with Joanna" protest in Krakow, Poland, on July 25, 2023. Rallies were held in Polish cities after alleged police hostility against a woman named Joanna, who took an abortion pill.

Polish scientists have developed lab tests that can detect if a person has taken abortion pills and are reportedly using the tests to investigate pregnancy outcomes in the country, according to a chilling article published by The New York Times last week.

Nearly three years ago, Poland’s right-wing government instituted a near-total ban on abortion. Since then, Polish officials have increasingly opened investigations into people seeking medical care for miscarriages. While Polish law does not criminalize having an abortion, the government can prosecute family, friends and health care professionals who provide or assist in abortions.

“Polish authorities’ ruthless pursuit of people trying to get or provide basic health care can only be described as a witch hunt,” Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The government is misusing police and courts to advance its anti-rights agenda, taking its abusive policies into private homes, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices.”

The Polish government has forcefully repressed the reproductive rights movement in the country, violently cracking down on demonstrations, threatening activists with prison time and ordering doctors to record all pregnancies in a national database.

Beyond ramping up surveillance of people suspected of terminating their pregnancies, Polish authorities have funded the development of tests that can determine whether a person has used mifepristone and misoprostol, the drugs typically used in a medication abortion. In rare cases, these tests have been used in prosecutions.

“By going after women and girls who need medical care — and doctors who provide it — Polish authorities are using their powers to terrorize people instead of to protect basic rights,” Margolis said. “As the government ramps up its targeting and harassment of people allegedly linked to abortion, anyone can fall prey to these attempts and have their privacy, dignity, and right to health violated.”

Reproductive rights activists in the U.S. should prepare for the possibility of such technology being adapted in states with abortion bans, wrote Patrick Adams, author of the Times article.

“Testing for abortion drugs is just the latest effort by the Polish government to enforce a stringent law,” he said. “It’s a perversion of science for political ends and a possible preview of what awaits us in America’s post-Roe future.”

In response to draconian bans and restrictions on abortion access, people in both Poland and the U.S. have increasingly relied on informal networks for access to pills to self-manage abortions. Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned in the U.S., thousands of people faced criminalization for pregnancy outcomes, including self-managed abortions, according to Pregnancy Justice.

Currently, abortion pills are banned or restricted in more than two dozen U.S. states — and if U.S. lawmakers move to develop lab tests that can detect whether a person has taken abortion pills in the future, there will be dire consequences for people who live in states where abortion is criminalized. Right-wing lawmakers in the U.S. have already introduced bills that would classify abortion as homicide, and a growing number of anti-abortionists have called for the death penalty for people who have had abortions.

“The abortion rights movement has experienced incredible amounts of surveillance to date, and we’re going to see an expansion of those tools that have already existed, and more of law enforcement using often illegal means to spy on or prosecute people, without Roe,” Rafa Kidvai, director of If/When/How’s Repro Legal Defense Fund (RLDF), told Jezebel.