For 10 years, Rebecca Gomperts' ship, the Aurora, has been sailing to countries where abortion is illegal and, covered by Dutch law, providing women with abortions. But, due to changes in that law, it may have sailed a last time.
Gomperts is the head of a program called Women on Waves, which operates the Aurora under provisions in Dutch law (and a waiver from the Dutch Minister of Health) that allow doctors, like Gomperts, to distribute abortion pills. Recent changes to Dutch law restrict women's access to medical abortions to specialized clinics, meaning that Gomperts and her patients could be prosecuted, according to The Independent.
Previously, Dutch women could obtain abortion pills from their doctor and bring on a miscarriage at home in the first two weeks of pregnancy. This is also legally possible in France and several other EU countries. But under a law passed by the Dutch coalition government in May, the prescription and use of abortion pills has been limited to approved clinics.
"The change in the Dutch law means that women in other countries would no longer be protected and could be prosecuted if they came to our ship," Dr Gomperts said yesterday. "We do not want to take that risk. We have suspended the voyages that we planned this year off the coasts of Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Argentina."
In Nicaragua this is particularly problematic, as a recent Amnesty International study shows that women and doctors are actively being prosecuted for abortions and even medical treatments intended to save the lives of mothers.
Interestingly, though, Gomperts uses the opportunity to debunk the biggest myth of her abortion ship: she's never performed a single surgical abortion on it. She tells the NRC Handelsblad:
Gomperts' dream of a fleet of abortion boats never materialised. It took until October 2008 for the organisation to get permission to use a converted sea container to perform curettages under certain conditions (up to 12 weeks pregnancy). Boats were used for campaign purposes, but no abortions were ever carried out there.
"The abortion boat is a myth," says Gomperts. "There are people who think we provide practical help all over the world. Of course it's a pretty sight: a ship entering a harbour full of women saying: abortion is a right. And then there will always be people wanting to stop the boat. The result is a symbolic fight that speaks to the imagination."
Reality is more prosaic. "Our only real strategy is letting women know that there is such a thing as the abortion pill. They have to know that there is medication available for pregnancy termination."
Gomperts tells The Independent that they did, however, distribute the pills to trigger a medical abortion on the ship, for the women brave enough to cross barriers and even picket lines to reach them.
Gomperts, however, hasn't simply given up. She's involved with a new organization called Women on Web, which operates in Canada and under Canadian law and uses online interviews to prescribe the abortion pill to women all over the world who otherwise lack access to it. She tells The Independent:
Dr Gomperts is also involved in another organisation, the Canadian-registered Women on Web, which makes abortion pills available by mail – sometimes for free – to women in countries where it is illegal. A doctor asks 25 questions over the internet to check for counter-indications. The pills are then sent in a plain envelope.
"For many women this is huge progress," Dr Gomperts said. "Women in countries where abortion is illegal live under tremendous stress. They go to unreliable websites where they are offered fake pills. There is also a [Women on Web] help desk where women can talk about their worries. There are no taboos online; there is no shame to talk."
Online counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals — especially from companies pretending to be in Canada — is a big problem, as some (one could even say most) often don't contain the advertised active ingredients. Both of Gomperts' sites warn women about the problems with buying counterfeit pills.
Having been a pro-choice activist for more than a decade, Gomperts doesn't plan to allow changes to Dutch law — or a threatened legal investigation — to force her to stop her work. She's taking legal action over the new law, and devoting more time to Women on Web in order to see that women the world over have safe access to the medical procedure they will, regardless of its legality, continue to seek.
[Image via Willem Velthoven]