The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have an international profile. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Karo Więckiewicz, an artist and activist from Warsaw, Poland. The interviewee submitted their typed responses to the questions.
Q: Who are you and what do you do?
I am an abortion activist living in Poland but also connected with Croatia and fascinated about the movements in Latin America (that’s why I am learning Spanish actually!) I am a lawyer and I have been doing abortion work for 10 years now. First in an non-governmental organization (NGO) since 2016 with an informal group called the Abortion Dream Team.  I support others to medical abortions with pills (providing information, counseling and accompaniment). I also run a legal help-line. Legally, I am trying to change the attitudes about abortion laws and convince people that they are in fact always anti-abortion and stigma-driven. I am also openly bisexual and am an LGBTI+ activist, a big part of that is being a trans-ally which is a huge part of my activist identity. I live in Warsaw, Poland, with my chosen family – a non-binary queer partner, two cats and a dog. I am a dedicated aunt to my 3-year-old nephew.
Q: Tell us about your journey into activism:
My abortion activism started by accident basically. It was 2010 and my good friend had to find replacement for legal help-line at an NGO that worked on abortion. She simply couldn’t do this [work] anymore. I said yes and it quickly was developing towards full-time work on abortion at this organization. I was though back then more into advocacy work on different levels, holding the state accountable, sitting at the United Nations, etc. But very soon I realized that the most important part of my work was to help people get abortions. In an organization I was focused on demanding access to hospital procedures that are allowed in Poland in just a few cases but hardly available. But I was also interested in access to pills, how they work, etc. Because people were calling me to get information, I didn’t want to tell them to call someone else. I wanted to be able to give information. So, I started learning about that. Especially that I remembered my own experience of searching for pills and information for myself, the fact that I couldn’t have found any and how difficult it was. After I quit my job at this organization (not going into details; it was just not a place for me anymore) in 2016 we gathered together – four friends whose activists’ paths had been crossing for some time and who wanted to continue abortion work with a focus on abortion with pills at home. As a lawyer who has been open-minded about abortion laws and challenging them, I began my beautiful journey with Abortion Dream Team. I want to dream this dream forever.
Q: When and why did you start your embroidery work?
My first piece was done in the fall of 2017. I did a uterus-shaped sign with the word “abortion” integrated into it. It was at a party to raise money for an informal group I was a member of to organize our annual women’s rights march. We were doing that with a friend, Ania Zajdel, who does embroidery as an political act by making political statements on different issues into embroidery pieces. She was one of the two embroidery artists (another one is Monika Drozynska) who had taught me the idea that this can be used for activism as well. I just would never have thought that I am ‘talented’ enough (well, their pieces are really amazing). It went well back then in terms of my skills and I still have that little one but I didn’t continue right after that. It wasn’t for another year until I really got excited. It was when we, as the Abortion Dream Team, did the workshop with that same friend of ours at the beginning of 2019. We were making pieces on abortion and having conversations about abortion. I took my unfinished [embroidery] home with all the supplies and equipment. And I made it complete back home. It was terrible to be honest. But I realized it just calms me down and that with practice I can do this. But also, it didn’t matter if they were any good back then, I just wanted to make them and give them to others. I realized that this can be also a way to express many, many thoughts on abortion that I had in my head. I didn’t want to make just anything. I wanted abortion pieces! Soon after this, I took all the supplies and went to Thailand for a work trip. I was making them like crazy, was coming up with so many ideas for new quotes. At some point, during a meeting with people who were encouraging me to keep going, I just opened an Instagram account. It is in English on purpose, I want to promote messages that are also shared by different organizations, groups and activists worldwide. It soon became so popular! I was surprised. Now people call me an artist, which is almost unbelievable. And I have nine thousand followers. People buy my pieces on Etsy. This is just so great. But what makes me really happy is the fact that it actually can make a difference in people’s lives. I get messages in which people actually tell me that my profile, what I do there, really has helped them with their experience – either when they were struggling with remorse, guilt or shame after their abortions or when they were actually there in a waiting room before a procedure. This is something I would have never expected. It touches my heart every time I read such stories and am so thankful that people take their time, reach out to me and share them.
Q: What does abortion access look like in Poland?
The situation is quite complicated. We have very restricted access to abortion as a health care service provided in hospitals. This is limited to cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities, a threat that pregnancy poses to a person’s life or health and cases in which pregnancy is a result of an criminal act. Access to those in reality is even more difficult than on paper. As we also all know these are not more than four percent of all abortions people need and have. Luckily, we have access to pills (via Internet we can order pills thanks to international organizations such as Women Help Women) and we can travel abroad. We also can undergo procedures that doctors perform in Poland outside the formal system. Criminalization of abortion only refers to those who actually perform a procedure outside the abortion law. Pregnant people can do anything with their pregnancies until the twenty-second week without legal consequences. But in order to have safe abortions they need access to comprehensive information, in many cases money and other resources, such as a possibility to leave a day or two from work, or to have someone who will take care of children they have.
Q: What is the Aborcyjny Dream Team? Can you tell us about your work with them?
We are a group of four – Natalia, Justyna, Kinga and I. All of us have been working on abortion forever now, in different settings, with sometimes different perspectives and from different angles. We got together in 2016 to hold a meeting when we talked about medical abortion with pills. Later on, we decided that we actually are a dream team and that we should continue traveling around Poland and share our knowledge that not that many people had back then. We wanted to give comprehensive information about the pills, the procedure itself, safe sources of drugs, legal aspects, etc. And we actually have never stopped but have been developing ever since. We work in 3D: decriminalization, de-medicalization and destigmatization of abortion. We focus on people with this experience. We focus on access. We want to normalize abortion as a common experience. We support those who need abortions with radical empathy. We organize campaigns, events, workshops, even an Abortion Summer Camp is taking place this year! It really is so hard to tell about all the initiatives. I would like though to mention Abortion Without Borders. We did that with Abortion Support Network – a charity from the UK that actually buys people abortions – and groups in the Netherlands (Abortion Network Amsterdam) and Germany (Ciocia Basia) as well as Women Help Women and Kobiety w Sieci – a group from Poland that has been supporting others to their abortions since 2006. The initiative is basically to help people (also financially) to get abortions abroad (in Germany, the Netherlands, or the UK). Also, people who call us can get information about medical abortion. We have been able to help so many people since the launch in December 2019!
My work as a member goes far beyond being a lawyer. Although each of us still has areas of work that we feel the best at of course. But also, we all support others to their abortions, we all are in touch with those who approach us via different channels, we plan campaigns, etc. We learn from each other every day. It has been the most inspiring and fulfilling time of my life.
Q: How has your work changed during the coronavirus pandemic?
It has actually influenced the work of Abortion Without Borders. It was harder to travel for abortion – a lot more complicated, time-consuming and expensive. We managed to help everyone who needed this though. But the time when it was impossible to fly in Europe was very difficult. It also was for many impossible to go anywhere – how are you supposed to explain to your family that you need to go abroad in the time of pandemic? Also taking pills had its challenges. Although it was possible to get pills through international organizations (Women Help Women has been amazing) it still was difficult for many to have an abortion with people being with them all the time. Especially when they couldn’t do it openly. So, another challenge – how to hide it – occurred. Many do abortions while children are at school or in another institution during the day. This was impossible during the pandemic. We have to keep in mind also that many peoples’ financial situations changed during the pandemic and with that also they made decisions to end pregnancies that they might have thought of keeping. Exposure to sexual violence from an intimate partner during a lockdown was also a part of the problem. Our work was to actually make people believe that they will get pills and that Abortion Without Borders is still operating. And we just had to take into consideration unusual circumstances of actual abortions that people were doing with and sharing with us while we were supporting them.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
For me these are all the moments in which people just tell us that it was so much better what they were going through only because we were there with them. There is nothing like that. The fact that I actually am able to help people and to make such a significant difference in their lives means everything to me.
Q: How do you practice self-care as an activist?
I actually am not that good at this to be honest. I am trying to get better and still learning. The fact is that embroidery is my self-care and relaxation, but I remember that at the very beginning I learned that I don’t owe anyone posts on Instagram. So, when I felt worse in winter (I am diagnosed with depression and anxiety) I was making pieces but not posting them. I just didn’t feel like it and I was ok with that. I just give myself a right to take breaks sometimes and not to be available all the time. I walk with my dog a lot and cuddle with my cats, spend some phone-free time with my partner, read books, take care of my plants, play with my nephew, or hit a gym. I know these are probably not too advanced strategies but I just do what I like. I also try not to take tasks that I feel are too much for me at the moment, I am learning how to ask for help when I know I won’t be able to do something.
Q: What advice do you have for others who are interested in becoming involved in art and activism?
Find something that you like doing, and don’t worry if your skills are not enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be powerful! I am not able to do any complicated stitches or I do not make any fancy patterns, I just look at [those pieces] in my Instagram feed – people are amazing. So, if there is something that makes you happy and relaxed when you are doing it – that is your thing! I learned that if embroidery can be more than what I practiced at school (my first one in 7th grade was actually a cross stitch bunny, and I never finished its tail), then any kind of art can be political and turned into some form of activism. I think that art is just such a good way to spread messages! Would you ever think that painting on plates can also be a political act? I know such a person who does that and it’s amazing. And Instagram is just such a good tool – people share each other’s stuff, get inspiration from one another, sometimes I just feel like we are one big group of activists who support each other.
Q: What’s next for you?
I am not thinking about this right now. It took me several months to put things for sale on ETSY! People had been asking me about that on Instagram for ages. My best friend (which is also an Abortion Dream Team member) had told me so many times to sell these. And I just didn’t have time to manage that, instead I was giving my pieces away. So I simply think I have to be rational about it and think of my real capacity (isn’t that also a part of self-care?). That is why I am for now sticking to what it is.
You can follow Karo on Instagram at @abortion_embroidery.