Captain of this ship

Doctor is pushing the limits on international abortion laws

Doctor Rebecca Gomperts
© 2004 Women on Waves

Dutch physician and women’s rights activist Rebecca Gomperts spearheaded a global movement in 1999 when she used a loophole in international law to provide non-surgical abortion services to women on a Dutch-registered ship in offshore waters.

Her mission was simple — to provide reproductive health services to women in countries where abortion laws were restrictive or where there was precarious and uninformed access to such services. “The project had the fervor of unabashed advocacy, but it also tugged at the issue of reviewing abortion laws at large,” Gomperts said. She used a simple and clever method to navigate the legal status quo. Once a ship has sailed 12 miles from a country’s coastline, the laws of the country from which it originated take full effect. So if a patient boards Gomperts’ vessel and rides with her out to where the laws of the Netherlands — where abortion is legal — are in effect, the patient is in no danger of breaking her nation’s law by aborting a pregnancy.

“The fundamental issue rests on the assertion that a woman has a right to her own body. How long can an institution or law continue to police information and enforce a sexist mentality and impose an unwelcome morality on a country?” said Gomperts on a Skype call from the Netherlands. Using this as the underlying principle behind her work, Gomperts created Women on Waves (WoW), a Dutch pro-choice, non profit organization to inform, educate, engage, inspire, and provoke social change on the frontline of women’s health.

While Gomperts’ initial plan was to conduct safe and legal surgical abortions by installing a portable gynecology unit on the ship, she realized she could help more women by training them to self-induce medical abortions using WHO-sanctioned protocols with pills that triggered miscarriages. WoW launched telemedicine support services and counseling hotlines and created web resources to train women to handle safe medical abortions themselves. Since 2000, Gomperts’ has partnered with a network of activists — local women’s groups, sex workers, LGBT and youth groups in different countries to get the message out and create a more informed community of people working on the vanguard of human rights.

“When I look back to the pilot project of the ship today, I realize that I only managed to treat maybe 20 women on board. But looking at how far we have come and the numbers today, I just have one thing to say: My controversial, sometimes questionable and stubborn determination has paid off.”

Gomperts’ initiative has grown into a worldwide campaign. Today, not only is she in the process of launching and unveiling an app in 15 different languages that teaches women how to self-induce medical abortions through animation videos and precise instruction, but she’s also gearing up for a test flight of an “abortion drone” this summer.  The drone would help deliver the WHO-administered pills to women with scant resources on ground.

“We are exploring the possibility of delivering the medicines with drones over borders. Initially it will be a very small drone, not a large one like the ones DHL, Amazon and Google are using. We aren’t there yet,” she explained. While the experimentation phase will involve a range of small drones with about 20-30 minutes of flight time, she hopes that in the future with the legal space around developing drones, operations can be expanded to remote areas.

Prior to the drone idea, WoW has utilized everything from stickers, banners, films, flyers, graffiti, television, and even currency to spread the word about its new operation. “Did you know that in Ecuador they even stamped our hotline numbers on the local currency?” said Gomperts.

Today, Gomperts has revisited some of the countries she ventured to initially by ship and has made some stark observations. She is impressed with how the abortion laws in Ireland have evolved. “It was tragic that the untimely demise of Savita Halappanavar led to Ireland passing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013, which still has some flaws, but at least people are not intimidated anymore,” she explained. On her most recent visit there, a Member of Parliament helped with transporting contraceptive kits.

The reality in Portugal today is quite different from when Gomperts’ voyaged there in 2004. “The law changed in 2007 and there are free abortions being carried out in state hospitals,” she said.

But Gomperts realizes that there is still a lot of work to be done. “In Spain, a woman is allowed an abortion only if a psychiatrist signs off on it,” she said. “As for Poland, the political landscape makes it immensely difficult. It’s like a fortress,” she said. When the communist regime was overthrown with the help of the Catholic Church in 1953, everything was affected and abortion up until then used to be legal. She went on to note that Poland has a long way to go because the country is still struggling with issues like sexual rights, sterilization bans and even discussion on homosexuality is a taboo. “Underground abortions take place, but nothing is in the public eye.”

She is also skeptical when it comes to abortion rights in America. “There is a fundamental problem with democracy in the U.S. and abortion cannot be viewed as an isolated issue,” she said. While she realizes this is a bold statement, she feels that the appointment of judges on a political level leads to biased and conservative opinions. “There is no rule of law,” she declared.

According to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women experience unsafe abortions worldwide each year and 47,000 women die from complications. This number matches statistics from the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and Gomperts’ quest is to help remedy this situation and provide an alternate narrative for women’s healthcare and women’s rights at large.

Click for larger image. 2014 World’s Abortion Laws Map/Center for Reproductive Rights

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.