Employees of Norwegian Cruise Lines were recently notified without warning or explanation that they would no longer have access to emergency contraceptives—for free or for purchase—unless they had been raped or sexually assaulted. The change went into effect on November 1.
One male Norwegian Cruise Lines employee sent Jezebel a November recording of a meeting with a ship doctor informing employees of the change, which actually seems to have been a rare attempt at transparency. In the recording, it is evident that the doctor seems to have little idea about why the change was enacted:
Employee: “Is there a reason for that change?”
Doctor: “I don’t know. We asked the office if they could revise it and they said no.”
Employee: “Did they give you a reason?”
Doctor: “They did not.”
Employee: “Is there someone that we can talk to about that? Like can we call the office?”
Doctor: “You can talk to the office about that but marine operations has been consulted. They say that if you want the emergency contraception you have to buy it yourself.”
Employee: “What if we’re at sea?”
Doctor: “I already talked to them about that. They still said.”
Employee: “Do you know where that policy is coming from?”
Doctor: “It’s on SMS so you can read it on the SMS.”
Employee: “Is it coming all the way—is this from the top?”
(SMS refers to a database the ship uses to share policies, operations, job descriptions, and other information.)
Another Norwegian Cruise Line employee (who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of a policy prohibiting its employees from speaking negatively about the company) told Jezebel that there was no company memo or meeting with a physician announcing the change; rather, women began to be turned away from the health center when requesting the contraception toward the end of 2015.
Employees have attributed the new policy to a recent change in management—in January of 2015, Frank Del Rio took over as president and CEO of the company. Under his guidance, ship minutiae such as flatware, carpets, and linens have been examined and replaced.
“You have to spend a little money on some areas to be able to facilitate the onboard experience,” Del Rio said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “Perhaps there was some underspending in prior years that we’re playing some catch-up on.”
Since the new healthcare policy was put into place, at least one woman has been denied Plan B. Weeks later, multiple ship employees have told Jezebel, she found out she was pregnant.
“We do not have access to a CVS or Walgreens while we are out to sea for months at a time,” one employee wrote in an email. “Often crew members are limited as to when they can and cannot get off the ship. For example, non U.S. citizens are not allowed off the ship in New York City.”
Still, sexual healthcare available on cruise ships is questionable to begin with—even for guests. According to The Telegraph, only six of the biggest cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, MCS Cruises, Holland America, Disney, and Crystal Cruises) out of the 12 competitive cruise lines make condoms available to their guests, and even fewer provide emergency contraception.
“Medical facilities on board today’s cruise ships are highly developed, but contraception and STI prevention among passengers are a long way from being the main focus,” said Dr. Richard Dawood, the Telegraph’s travel health expert.
Of course, guests are generally on the boat for under 14 days. Employees are often there for much longer.
“Our job aboard may prevent us from being granted shore leave for weeks or months,” the anonymous employee told Jezebel. “If we are granted shore leave we may only have a few hours on a remote island on a Sunday morning, for example. Certainly not enough time to see a physician or even go to a proper pharmacy,” the employee continued. “For these reasons, female crew members rely on the onboard health center to provide that care.”
The American College of Emergency Physicians Cruise Ship Medicine Section’s latest cruise ship healthcare guidelines recommend that contraceptives be kept onboard, along with two sexual assault evidence collection kits. It also states explicitly, “Each ship should carry sufficient stock of emergency post-coital contraception and post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) anti-retroviral and antibacterial medications to minimize the risk of pregnancy and transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses.”
Many of the above guidelines weren’t instated until the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 mandated that ships had the means to care for and protect rape victims. (Even that act proved problematic after the FBI inserted a poorly-worded clause that meant that only cases that had been opened and closed by the agency would be counted—the number of reported crimes dropped precipitously since only a fraction of cases ever make it to the FBI.)
Reaching out to other companies about their policies yielded limited results: A Royal Caribbean spokesperson told Jezebel it makes Plan B available to its crew and guests, while a rep from Cunard said all ships “have a doctor’s surgery, offering a similar service to that of a land based GP,” and promised to send more information. Requests to eight other cruise lines went unanswered.
Thanks to Norwegian’s removal of emergency contraceptives, which may or may not be part of a larger overhaul of the company’s approach to healthcare, female employees have no recourse should their chosen birth control fail while at sea.
“If we find ourselves pregnant we must quit our jobs, regardless of the family planning choice we make,” the employee said, “and if our birth control fails for whatever reason we may have to wait days, weeks, or months to have access to emergency contraception.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines did not return Jezebel’s numerous requests for comment.
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Image via Alfonso de Tomas/Shutterstock, text via Bobby Finger